“I want to be part of my own country’s team, I don’t want to go abroad. I want to bring pride to Iran and show that Iranian women can do this sport too.” Says Shafiei then adds, “Outside, Iran is depicted differently. We want to change that view.
People ask if women are allowed to drive in Iran. “Of course they are”, says Shafiei.
With a bright orange and black biker suit and helmet, the motorcyclist looks just like any other, until the helmet comes off. The rider is a woman.
“When people find that out, they stop and say damet-garm [Persian for ‘right on’],” Behnaz Shafiei told the Guardian. She feels welcome in an otherwise all-male motorcycling club, where she practices three times a week.
Shafiei, who was born and raised in Karaj, near Tehran, found her passion for motorcycling at the age of 15 while on holiday with her family in Zanjan province. With support from her family, especially her mother, Shafiei dabbled in motorcycling for a few years before pursuing the sport professionally. “I used to borrow my brother’s bike and ride in the city stealthily. It was such fun,” she said.(1)
The standard of living for women in Iran is only slightly higher than that in neighboring Middle Eastern countries. It remains illegal for women to ride motorcycles in public. Conservative clerics also denounce the idea of women attending men’s sporting events. Women can however, participate in other sports like martial arts to car rallies but are required to be appropriately dressed as per Islamic tradition.
(This reminds me of women in ancient Athens and the ban on them attending the all-male Olympics). Women’s rights for Iranian women and their legal status has continually changed through the different governments and historical eras.(2)
Shafiei and five other women worked hard to get official identifications from Iran’s Motorcycle and Automobile Federation to allow them to race on amateur tracks. They still don’t have access to Iran’s only standard motocross track at the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran, so they often race on the capital’s outskirts without even ambulance service in the track. Shafiei says, “If someone got injured, things could get even worse by the time they reach a hospital.”(1)(3)
“My goal is to be a pioneer to inspire other women,” she said. “Together, we can convince authorities to recognize women’s motorcycle racing.”
27-year old Behnaz has found her passion and no matter legal bans or limitations; she is driving her way through the barriers and is today, the one and only Iranian rider to have done professional road racing.
Things have a way of changing even if slowly and this biker has caught the attention of national press. She was also interviewed by a local television channel. Behnaz hopes that laws will change soon too, allowing her to race in the motocross track in Tehran.
Until then, crowds come out to cheer as the daredevil practices her stunts on amateur tracks. As the helmet comes off, mobile phones compete to catch a glimpse of this passionate Iranian who has found her freedom on a motorcycle. This was 2015 and the passion hasn’t diminished.
On January 4, 2020, the country’s first ever female motorbike race was conducted by Behnaz on the race track of Karaj near Tehran, for which she and a few other women had been campaigning for the last three years. This was done with a nod from the country’s Sport’s Ministry, in order to break the glass-ceiling.
Iran’s gender-biased system keeps it’s women out of the front. But, despite being barred from motorcycle riding by modesty laws, these women established a powerful victory.
Together with Behnaz, 15 more women were lined up with their wheels on the start line of the dusty, rock-strewn race track of Karaj, to race against all odds. This race, being the first of it’s kind, there wasn’t much of an audience per se but this didn’t divert the racers from making history.(4)
Behnaz is an inspiration to many and proves the age old adage that ‘barriers are only those that are created in the mind’! Leap beyond the barriers and just see them crumble away!
- Images – from Behnaz Shafiei’s Instagram page.