Women's Emancipation in Iran Racing against the Mullahs

Women are second-class citizens in Iran, barred from singing or dancing in public, unable to travel without a permit. Car racing is another no-no for Iranian females, but that hasn't stopped two women from finding emancipation behind the wheel.

Zohreh Vatankhah steps into the elevator on the fifth floor, takes it down to the ground floor, turns right and walks through a heavy steel door into the garage where her 2006 Toyota Corolla is parked. But this isn't your ordinary Toyota. It's a dented affair in pink, complete with a roll bar and bucket seats. She snaps on the seat belt, turns the ignition key and the engine roars to life, causing the hood to tremble like the membrane on a bass speaker. Not exactly the kind of car that would pass inspection for driving on the roads in most Western countries.

Then she puts the pedal to the metal and her pink car shoots out of the garage, tires screeching. The janitor sweeping the courtyard stares after her, his mouth agape. Vatankhah inserts Christina Aguilera's latest album into the cassette player and drums her fingers to the beat on the steering wheel. She drives toward the bazaar in downtown Tehran, crosses a bridge and passes graffiti instructing passersby to "Destroy Israel" and a poster of a burning American flag.

Five minutes later Vatankhah is stuck in a traffic jam -- nothing short of torture for a person who loves driving as much as she does. Speed is her profession. Vatankhah is a professional racecar driver. In Iran, of all places -- where the profession is not only dominated by men, but also practically owned by them.

Mirdamad Boulevard is normally a three-lane street, but by two in the afternoon it becomes a parking lot with cars jammed in six abreast. Nothing is moving in Tehran today, including the elevated roads, tunnels, downtown highways and beltways. It's total gridlock, and Vatankhah is desperate to get out of the city so she can train in the mountains. She's 29 and wears Gucci sunglasses and Max Mara perfume. Her hair is coffee-brown with blonde streaks and she wears a bold lipstick. She expects no less from life than to be able to navigate her way through it at a breakneck pace.

It's dusk by the time she's driving her Toyota through a puddle on a track in the Elbur Mountains. Today she is practicing negotiating tight curves at high speeds. Her co-pilot is standing on a hill, her hands buried in the pockets of her red-and-white overalls. She squints, observing her friend's maneuvers with a critical eye. The Corolla pulls to the left, Vatankhah yanks the car to the right, hurling gravel into the air, and then she slams on the brakes and rolls down the window.

"How was I?"

"The radius is still too wide."

She nods, glances in the side-view mirror and reapplies her lipstick.

Iran is a country in which women have been considered second-class citizens since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In a court of law, a woman's testimony is worth only half as much as that of a man, and sons inherit twice as much as daughters. Women are not permitted to sing or dance in public, or even ride a bicycle. They cannot travel without a man's permission. A man can forbid his wife from working, and if he catches her with another man, he can kill her without fear of punishment. Wearing a headscarf is mandatory, while the chador, or full-body veil, is preferred.

Vatankhah is the embodiment of sin for Iran's religious fundamentalists and radical mullahs, but for the country's urban youth she is a vision. She reflects the kind of country the children of Iran's upper and middle classes want to be living in: modern and self-confident, embracing life and cosmopolitan.

In Iran, a country where women and men sit in separate sections on buses, trains and subways, how has a woman like Vatankhah managed to pull off this feat -- competing against men in rallies? "Ask Laleh," she says.

Securing an appointment with Laleh Seddigh is no easy feat. She doesn't respond to e-mails, sometimes doesn't answer her phone for days and doesn't return calls.

Nevertheless, she does appear promptly, as agreed, at 11 a.m. at the Hotel Esteklal, which she has suggested as a place to meet. Seddigh, 30, is an icon of feminism and without a doubt the country's most controversial female athlete. When she walks into the lobby, conversations stop for a moment. She is surprisingly short. Her skin looks artificially stretched, her nose almost too perfectly straight and her cheekbones unusually high. Other than the hands, the face is the only part of the body that women are not required to keep covered, and having cosmetic surgery is a form of silent protest. She wears a leopard skin-patterned silk scarf draped loosely over the back of her head, a blue turtleneck sweater under a brown coat and a Rolex watch. She extends her hand in greeting, a taboo in a country where women are only permitted to shake hands with men who are members of their family. But Seddigh isn't interested in taboos. She has a strong handshake.

She is a pioneer in Iran, the first female athlete to have competed against a man in the 25 years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established the theocracy. It was in 2004, during a long-distance race in Tehran. "I broke a taboo. I'm proud of it. Why should Iranian women be weak? I don't know," she says in fluent English. "Our Prophet Mohammed never claimed that women should be locked up at home and doomed to watch the children while the man enjoys himself outside. On the contrary: He wanted men to encourage their wives and daughters to develop their personalities to the fullest. To be a successful country, we need strong women."

A wrong sentence can mean prison or a whipping in Iran, and yet Seddigh is not afraid to speak her mind. She is clearly fond of pushing the envelope.

She is the oldest of four children. Her father, who studied in Switzerland, owns four companies that produce furnaces and engine parts. Seddigh drives a black Mercedes S 350 with leather seats and lives in Tehran's Niawaran district, where the air is better and the price of real estate astronomical.

She learned to drive at 13, secretly took her father's Buick for a spin at 14 and totaled her first car at 17, when she drove into a tree and broke her left leg in four places. Her father calls her "Laleh Agha," or "Mr. Laleh."

Four years ago she applied for a racing license with Mafiri, the Iranian racing association. Mohammed Khatami, a moderate intellectual, was Iran's president at the time. Internet cafés sprang up in the cities, the reformers in the government tolerated Western pop music and women were still wearing brightly colored headscarves.

Seddigh says: "I explained to the board of Mafiri that separating the sexes was not in keeping with the president's ideas, and that it was high time for a change. I told them that they would go down in history if they allowed me to race with the men. Officials are vain people."

Three months later, Zohreh Vatankhah applied for a license to race in rallies.

Seddigh and Vatankhah have a lot in common. They even look like sisters. Both are from affluent families and they made the pilgrimage to Mecca together. Both are still single in a country where girls can be married off at 13. They are strong women, but without being hard-edged. Vatankhah studied electrical engineering, while Sadigh holds a doctorate in industrial engineering and teaches at the university two days a week. More than 60 percent of the students at Iranian universities are women, but the unemployment rate among women is even higher.

'They Should Stick to Washing Machines'

The car racing stadium in Tehran is in Asadi Park, next to the football stadium. The steel tubing of the stands is rusted, the wooden benches are greasy and the roof leaks. Eight long-distance races are held here every year, with nine categories per race, always on Fridays. Prize money is awarded in the first three categories, with the winner taking home up to €2,700 ($3,900). Anywhere from 15 to 22 drivers compete in each race, and the races consist of 10 rounds around the track.

Two small cars are tearing down the track in an informal race. The smell of burnt rubber is in the air. A couple of bearded men in windbreakers stand on the sidelines, chain-smoking. One of them, who is also a racecar driver but prefers to remain anonymous, says: "If Laleh and Zohreh so desperately want to operate a machine, then they should stick to washing machines." Then he spits onto the asphalt.

During a rally through Iran's eastern Lut Desert, Vatankhah was leading in the first stage when someone smashed the windshield of her Toyota at night. The next morning, a wooden club lay on the driver's seat like a threat.

Seddigh placed third in her first race. Not unexpectedly, none of her competitors congratulated her. When she waved to her female fans, who had climbed up on the fences, screaming, the management ordered her to behave properly. She had to wear a black coat over her overalls during the awards ceremony.

A year later, when she won the championship in her engine class (smaller than 1,600 cc), there was no mention of her victory in the media. Even today, the television networks suspend live coverage whenever she receives a trophy. The newspapers print her name the next day, but without any photos.

During the penultimate race of the 2006 season, the stadium announcer called out Seddigh's name, ordering her to appear at the starting line, but guards refused to allow her through the gate, citing orders from above. She was later told that the head of the racing association had decided that she would never be allowed to race again.

He was afraid of the new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative extremist. "They wanted to prevent me from capturing the championship again," says Seddigh.

She sits in the hotel lobby in a yellow armchair, laughing between sentences, fluttering her painted eyelashes. Her espresso has been cold for a while.

Then she tells the story of how she and her father went to see an ayatollah in Tehran. They asked him for a fatwa, and the cleric complied and issued a religious ruling stating that there are no religious reasons to prevent women from competing in races against men. The only condition was that the Islamic dress code had to be adhered to.

The drivers wear a fireproof suit, gloves, a hood and a helmet. When the race begins, not even their eyes are visible behind their visors. They couldn't possibly be covered up any further. This explains why women were allowed to race.

Nevertheless, the religious fanatics routinely pull them out of circulation. At times, they must feel like the characters in a puppet theater, controlled by invisible strings.

Seddigh is currently barred from racing because she supposedly broke the rules in her last race. "But I didn't do anything wrong," she insists.

The office of the national racing association is hidden away on the second floor of a squat building with dark corridors. The vice president, a somewhat heavy-set man with a lot of gel in his hair, sits bent over his desk. Hossein Shahriahi claims Seddigh was driving an unregistered car.

How do you know this? the journalist asks.

"Everyone has his little spies."

He serves up an improbable story about a broken engine seal, car numbers that were moved, mechanics who repainted the car and a hidden camera that recorded the whole thing.

Can he show us the pictures, we ask?


Why not?

"Must there be a reason for everything?"

Did you discuss the case with Laleh Seddigh?


Why not?

"I don't like your questions."

He informs us that the interview is over, and that his time is, regrettably, precious. The next day the paramilitary Basij, the group that was on the front lines of the revolution, celebrates its anniversary. Thousands of young men and women march through the streets, staring rigidly ahead, carrying assault rifles and dressed in camouflage uniforms or the chador.

Vatankhah bought gasoline on the black market that morning. Iranians are only permitted to buy three liters a day legally -- not enough for her Corolla. Then she drove the car to a shop for an oil change.

She has competed in 37 rallies so far, and has stood on the podium 27 times. She has been a professional racecar driver for 15 months. She has a corporate sponsor that pays her €5,000 a year. It paid for the Toyota, and it pays the costs of spare parts, repairs and travel to races. If she needs more money she asks her father, who owns a marble and granite business. "He helps me, so that I can live the way I think I should live. He doesn't want me to have to hide myself."

She dreams of racing in other countries like Seddigh, who has raced in the Formula 3 in Italy, at the Autodroma Nazionale in Monza, and has been to California for trials. To race abroad, Vatankhah would have to take a special examination in Dubai, at a cost of $1,000. But the Iranian racing association turned down her application -- and sent 11 men to the Persian Gulf instead.

Now she is trying to make her own arrangements to go to Dubai. She has obtained a visa and has asked the examination committee in Dubai whether it will allow her to attend the driving school without the racing association's sponsorship. She is still waiting for a response.

She goes to a party that evening, wearing brown, skin-tight trousers, black leather boots and a black top. Of the 40 or so guests, more than half are women. None of them is wearing a headscarf.

There is dancing and necking. A text message makes the rounds: "Why does Ahmadinejad wear his hair parted on the side? So that he can separate the male lice from the female lice."

Vatankhah chain-smokes Winstons and eats potato salad with pine nuts. She drinks shots of vodka from bottles smuggled into the country. There are five bottles of Smirnoff -- at $30 a bottle on the black market. Isn't she worried about the police?

"That's not a problem. If they show up we'll buy our way out of it. Each of us pays $80 to make the problem go away."

She takes a taxi home at 2 a.m. She's tipsy. The next morning, she plans to go to the gym after breakfast, to get in shape for her next rally, a 350-kilometer (218-mile) race from Tehran to Sari. But first she checks her emails.

She's received an answer from Dubai. The officials write that she is welcome to come and that there is nothing to prevent her from taking the examination. They add that they are looking forward to meeting her.

It's only a partial victory -- but an important one.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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