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Laleh Seddigh an auto racing driver, talks to another race car driver during the first round of the BMW School Series in Bahrain in 2006. REUTERS/Hamad Mohammed

Road warrior

How one woman overcame Iran’s patriarchy to become its first female champion race car driver

By Nishita Jha on November 20, 2015

“Don’t be a pure feminist,” Laleh Seddigh, Iran’s first champion race car driver told a packed audience at the Women in the World Summit in New Delhi on Friday. “Pure feminists are selfish. Learn to be clever instead — if you act like a lady, and learn to manage men, you will get what you need and be able to sit back while men do all the work.”

While Seddigeh is not the first female celebrity to distance herself from the term “feminist,” she works within a particularly challenging context: Her career might not have existed at all but for the support of men.

Born in Tehran in 1977, Seddigeh was 2 years old when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power. Her father taught her how to drive at the age of 13, and by 18 Seddigeh had passed a driving test and was legally ready to fly. Iran’s racing circuit, however, was not ready for her. Almost as soon as Seddigeh applied to become a race car driver, the racing federation decreed female drivers un-Islamic. In Iran, this can have very serious consequences — women are arrested, given face lashings and, in rare cases, even executed for behavior that’s decreed un-­Islamic by the moral police. Seddigeh knew she had to fight fire with fire, and approached a local ayatollah to fast forward her own fatwa. Decreeing that there was nothing un-Islamic about women driving, the ayatollah gave Seddigeh permission to race — provided she would always be modestly clad.

Seddigeh went on to win that first race, but Iran TV was banned from showing her on the podium. This gentle and persistent negotiation with the patriarchy to earn certain freedoms has become second nature to Seddigeh and many other young women in Iran. Despite the fact that both law and tradition treat women as lesser citizens and feminism is viewed as an active political threat, feminist cinema and storytelling in Iran is rich and thriving.

In a BBC documentary exploring the macho culture of the race track, through the story of Seddigeh’s life, she said she has lived her life always thinking one step ahead of her male competitors and detractors. When the federation banned her yellow racing car, she painted it blue and raced anyway.

In perhaps the most telling moment of the film, when her boss claims credit for 90 percent of her victories, Seddigeh responds saying, “I have only one question: if he made me, why hasn’t he made more like me?” Yet in the next clip, she is seen demurely thanking him for his intervention in letting her race.

In many ways, Laleh Seddigeh’s life embodies the contradictions of being a woman in Iran and other parts of the world where women are routinely oppressed. She is empowered, but wary that acknowledging her privilege could detract from her struggle. She is training other female race car drivers, but knows their journey will be not be easy for multiple reasons — racing is expensive, it is hard to find families as supportive as her own, and smaller cities, unlike Tehran, are yet to allow daughters to intermingle with men at all, let alone race them.

Seddigeh will not leave Iran. It is not just because, as she told a cheering audience today, she is “most effective” in Iran, but because, while the problems women face in their own homes might be terrible, they are also familiar. If she were to accept the United States’ offer of citizenship and move, she would no longer be Laleh Seddigeh­­ no longer be called “Little Schumacher” — a reference to the legendary Formula One race car driver Michael Schumacher of Germany — as she is so fondly described in her home country.