The Speed Sisters, the Palestinian women’s motor racing team, are a Middle Eastern first: Independent and passionate, they’ve charted their own roadmap through a male-dominated sport, steering around family expectations, social pressures, community politics and an active military occupation.
Zoom out and the nuances deepen – women in nearby Saudi aren’t permitted to drive. Racing is a sport and a brilliant form of protest allowing drivers to demonstrate traits not typically valued in Arab females. It illustrates what may be possible in a rapidly changing Middle East. The team has a changing roster of Muslims and Christians, headed by Maysoon Jayyusi, whose love of fast cars emerged during frustrating hours at Israeli checkpoints.
Veteran Speed Sister Mona Ennab told The National, “When I drive, I understand freedom. We’re used to being stopped at checkpoints, but on days we have races, we fly through. One day, a woman from Palestine will win an international Formula race.”
Mona was the first women spotted by Khaled Khadoura, founder of the Palestinian Motorsport & Motorcycle Federation, while she raced boys in Ramallah’s streets. She started driving at a kiddie karting arcade in Amman’s Mecca Mall. “It’s a slow process,” she says. “The men made fun of us at the beginning, but we won their respect and now our fellow male racers are our biggest supporters.”
Mexican-born Betty Sa’adeh started racing in 2010; by 2011 she was the Palestinian women’s champion. She says, “I want to show the world that Palestinian women are more than their media image.”
Team captain Suna Aweida was one of the first women to race in Palestine, placing in the top 10. Retired from racing in 2010, the inspirational mentor acknowledges that her family wasn’t happy for her to participate.
Diaspora-baby Noor Daoud was born in Texas, raised in Jerusalem, and schooled in Switzerland. An Olympic swimmer and player on the Palestinian national soccer team, she’s now focused on racing Formula 3. The first Palestinian to participate in (and win) an Israeli race, she loves to “drift” her car and ride dirt bikes.
Last December, Noor nailed first place for women in Israel’s first legal car race, a two-day event in Eilat that featured Formula cars in a traditional grand prix format. The win brings her one step closer to her dreams of racing internationally. “Some people may judge Noor for racing with Israelis. If I were in her place, I would do the same,” says Speed Sister Mona. “She has a Jerusalem ID which allows her to participate, and she’s made us proud.”
The newest Sister, Sahar, is the first member to wear the hijab. Some Muslim clerics have condemned motor sport for being frivolous and haram. But as we’ve seen during the 2012 Olympics, Islamic law is subject to varied interpretation.
Ranked in the top 10 of 67 racers, the team stands poised to break onto the international arena, presenting an inspiring image of Palestine and of Arab women. But the Speed Sisters are keenly conscious of the limited professional options: sponsorship money is scarce (the British Consulate in Jerusalem funds their race car).
In many ways, the women represent Palestine’s diversity: fragmented West Bank cities divided by checkpoints, settlements and class differences. They are unified by intense love of racing, a Palestinian identity and an appetite to compete in a male-dominated sport.
Green Prophet’s reported on solid gold Mercedes, but we don’t support car racing. We’re gobsmacked by the Middle East pasttime of dangerous drifting and no fans of frivolous fossil fuel use. So why cover this story?
There’s a Jordanian saying that translates, “Sometimes you slaughter a camel to feed a fox”. Maybe burning a few barrels of fuel is small change compared to the large positive change these emergent celebrities and role models will incite. Debaters, start your engines.