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You go, girl!
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 07 - 07 - 2005

Karim El-Gawhary ponders the ultra quick chick that is Iran's
She drives the hottest set of wheels in the Islamic Republic. When trains on the circuit in western Teheran, the asphalt is melted by more than the midday sun. With squealing tyres and expert handling the professional rally driver skilfully negotiates the bends, revs up and belts straight down the track. Not for nothing is her orange and white Proton saloon -- the vehicle that crashed through Iran's gender barriers -- emblazoned with the word "champion". Proud of her nickname the "Iranian Schumacher", Laleh has been driving on the rally circuit for five years, on the Caspian Sea, in the Iranian mountains and desert, and a year ago was granted permission to compete against men. It came with great success: Saddigh has won first prize in several competitions. Very often the only thing her male competitors see of her car is the rear bumper disappearing through a cloud of dust.
The 28-year old skids to a halt, undoes her safety belt and leaps athletically from the car, slowly peeling off her driving gloves. Not until she removes her helmet, revealing the obligatory Islamic headscarf underneath, is it clear that this racetrack is in the land of the Islamic revolution. From head to toe the rally driver oozes confidence, from her close-fitting orange-and-white driving suit to the tip of her black hair peeping out from under her headscarf. "Most of the people here find it strange to see a woman taking part in car rallies, but I want to show them that everybody has potential and that we can all reach our goals," she explains. "Iranian women are proud of me and keep pushing me on to do better things. I hope I can set an example for them that with enough willpower women can achieve anything." Laleh's self-confidence seems boundless.
Laleh has been behind the wheel since her proud father -- a dealer in spare car parts -- taught her how to drive when she was only 13. "He is my greatest support and the first love of my life," she enthuses. "I definitely inherited my ambition from him," she admits. At the age of 14 she started secretly "borrowing" his car for joy rides, on one occasion driving into the back of another vehicle. Her car was badly damaged, but she quietly and calmly parked it in front of her family home, managing to persuade her father that it was victim of a hit-and-run incident. Four years later, when she earned her driver's licence, she took her father to one side and finally confessed the truth.
The man in the barracks beside the racetrack is a member of the Iranian rally driver's association. With his perfectly trimmed beard, he looks like a member of the Islamic regime in Tehran, but he seems to have come to terms with the ambitious new female star and the 30 other female drivers on the circuit. "Of course the women must observe the Islamic customs," he explains. When I ask what exactly that means, he answers with a grin: "As long as they're dressed, everything's fine."
Standing on the track in front of her racecar, Laleh laughs when I ask what it feels like to stand on the winner's podium looking down on her male competitors. "This is exactly what they look like," she says, pulling a face. Unable to suppress a laugh she says, "I just tell them they need to practise a bit more to improve."
The crazy and unpredictable traffic on the streets of Tehran -- which turns even the most seasoned driver pale -- remains Laleh's biggest challenge and her toughest driving school. "When you're driving in a rally you're dealing with professional drivers, but Tehran has its fair share of Sunday drivers, so you have to be more aware and concentrate more," she explains.
Down-time for the management student -- who is also a show jumper and pianist, and as a painter knows as much about oil paints as she does about motor oil -- comes in the evening, as she relaxes with her family in a Tehran restaurant. "Laleh is a real go-getter, I sometimes worry about her," says her younger sister Banasheh, who manages her father's spare parts dealership. She goes on to list the number of accidents her sister has been involved in, something Laleh herself does not like to dwell on.
Laleh has a metal plate in her thigh, the result of a crash she had a few months after receiving her driver's licence, colliding with a tree while driving at over 100 kilometres per hour on a winding road between Tehran and the Caspian Sea. A year ago she broke two vertebrae in a crash and was ordered to stay in bed for several months; she was behind the wheel again after only a couple of weeks. "Every day my mother prays for the safety of her speed- obsessed daughter, and tries to console herself with the fact that she has nine lives," Banasheh calls across the table.
Her voice is almost drowned out by the live Persian music playing in the background, which the mullahs have recently allowed back into some Tehran restaurants. A musician throws his drum in the air, deftly catches it and continues beating the rhythm while Laleh claps to the music. But in this restaurant, for the first time today, Laleh is reminded of the restrictions on her freedom. Noticing a jet-black ponytail peeping out from under her headscarf, the maitre d' politely asks her to rearrange her headdress to comply with "Islamic requirements". It would not be the first time for a restaurant to be closed for a month for failing to conform to Islamic codes.
The rebel on four wheels suddenly seems lost in her own thoughts. Perhaps her mind is on the racetrack, where her helmet defends her freedom and where, no matter how sharp the bend, she is always in the race.


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