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Speed Sisters: meet the Middle East’s female car-racing team

The acrylic nails aren’t the first thing you notice, but they’re definitely in the mix, alongside hot dust, hot air, thick engine oil, makeshift tracks, customised street cars, puffy one-piece racing suits. Oh yes, and women: Palestinian women, some of whom wear amazing nail art.

Meet the world’s first all-female racing-car driving team from occupied Palestine. There’s Maysoon Jayyusi, the team’s 38-year-old manager, from Jerusalem, who says her love for racing-car driving came from the frustration of being stuck in the West Bank’s constant traffic jams and checkpoints; Mona Ali, 29, from Ramallah, who was one of the first female racers in Palestine; Marah Zahalka, 23, who was a racing champion at 19; Noor Dauod, 25, from Jerusalem, who is determinedly persistent, if not always successful on the race track; and finally Betty Saadeh, 35, the only member who comes from a wealthy family of racers in Bethlehem.

The five women are the focus of Amber Fares’ feature-length documentary, Speed Sisters, which recently played to full houses at an international documentary festival in Sheffield. It’s a full-throttle but sensitive take on the adventures this female team face as they take on all the stereotypes that confront them as they try to break into a male-dominated sport within a conservative (relatively speaking – this isn’t Saudi Arabia) society.

“I was racing cars when I was a kid, learning how to do it, speeding with the boys from school,” says Ali. When she was 16 and too young to have a licence, she would borrow her sister’s car and race through Ramallah by night, when the streets were deserted. She was the first woman to join the fledgling Palestinian racing federation in 2005. “At first, the boys wouldn’t accept me; they didn’t want to race with me,” she says. “But I told them I’d carry on racing whether they liked it or not.” And so she did. As the other women joined the federation in the years that followed, they soon became a regular fixture on Palestine’s increasingly popular car-racing circuit – the “circuit” being market squares and airstrips repurposed for weekend races.

Spectators at a motorsport event in Palestine

Being accepted – first by family, then by male peers – as female racing-car drivers was a challenge. The film shows the terrible pressure of the sacrifices made by families scrabbling funds together, in an economy stunted by occupation, for what is an inaccessibly expensive sport: costs for cars, continuous maintenance, repairs and training can run into tens of thousands of dollars. We see how Zahalka, for instance, has varying degrees of support from her immediate family – her grandfather doesn’t think she should have been encouraged to race, while her father is easily her number one fan. Her family delayed the purchase of land on which to build a home and decided instead to buy her a car.

Weaved into all of this is the essentially Palestinian story of life under occupation: trying to find freedom and agency in pursuits such as sport while the economic and practical realities of a decades-long military occupation seem to stymie these attempts at every turn.

Palestinian racing driver Betty Saadeh

The West Bank, where the Speed Sisters live and train, doesn’t have car-racing tracks, and the women can’t afford actual racing vehicles, so they end up customising standard street cars to race against male teams. They practise on stretches of land next to Israeli military compounds, where, at one point in the film, one of them is hit by a tear-gas canister fired by a soldier.

You’d only put yourself through all this if you loved the sport. And these racers clearly do. Team manager Jayyusi now lives in Jordan, but she still leads the team. “It’s true that, when we first started, people looked at us as though we’d just landed from space,” she says. “But when they saw us race they changed their minds. Now we have fans, people who encourage us and sponsor us.” She thinks female racing-car drivers becoming a formidable force within the Arab world is just like anything else in any other place: “You prove that you are strong enough, not scared, that you can compete with the men,” she says. “And then it just becomes acceptable.”


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