High heels and fast wheels: Check out the first female racing team in the Middle East

No, we’re not talking about a parody of Roger Corman’s movie from the fifties. We’re also not talking about the recent remakes featuring Vin Diesel. Speed Sisters is a documentary, presenting us the first all female racing team in the Middle East – a mix of Muslims and Christians.

The West Bank, that’s more than 3 million people living together on a surface of 5.860 square kilometers or more than 511 people per square kilometer. Racing cars around here is like writing a novel on a napkin. But the lack of space is far from the only problem. Living in occupied territory isn’t an advantage either. There’s traffic jams and check points. And if that isn’t enough, there’s also the stereotypes. Although the latter is a universal problem.

Speed_Sisters_(8) (1)

High heels, fast wheels

Even if you’ve never been at a car race, you know it’s a very masculine event. A testosterone injected feast of technology in which women are often seen as accessories. Okay, this may be somewhat exagerated. But it’s not the most progressive environment. Imagine, now, entering this world as a woman.

That’s exactly what Mona Ali did. This 29 year old from Ramallah was one of the first female racers in Palestine. Of course, the “boys” weren’t amused when they saw her behind the wheel. She soon proved them wrong. Because instead of watching television at night, already at the age of 16, Ali raced the streets of Ramallah. She’s not afraid of handling a spanner and a wrench.

When in 2005 the Palestinian Motor Sport and Motorcycle Federation was founded. Ali was one of the first women to join. Others soon joined. The youngest being Marah Zahalka, 23, from Jenin, a very conservative community and one of the most economically deprived cities in Palestine. Nevertheless with her mother working as a driving instructor, Zahalka picked up a strong interest in cars at very young age.

Speed_Sisters_(1) (1)

Another racer is Noor Daoud, 25, from Jerusalem, known as the wild one because she’s full of energy. As a kid, she used to collect toy cars. Nowadays she works as a skydiving instructor and competes in drifting, one the more spectacular and dangerous disciplines in autoracing. Noor also was a boxer, a swimmer and a weightlifter and did some other sports as well.

Just as with a girls band, there has to be a lead singer. And that’s definitely Betty Saadeh, 35, who was born in Mexico. Like her brother, she carries on the family tradition of auto racing. But as a local celebrity, she’s equally at easy in the media. Make no mistake however. Saadeh’s feminine appearance only shows her determination not to fit in with the boys. And once she’s on the track, she only cares about winning.

Not all “sisters”are interested in competition. For Maysoon Jayyusi, the Jerusalem born manager of 38, racing used to be a way of dealing with the frustrations of being stuck at traffic jams or check points, which are all too common in the West Bank. She later became manager of the team, being an excellent mediator in case of discussions.

Money matters

Next to being accepted by their male competitors the Speed Sisters had a to struggle to find the funding necessary to keep their cars operational. They’re racing modified street cars, for budget reasons. But even then, it’s not a hobby for cheapskates. A few years ago, when they started, they had some financial support from the British consulate in East Jerusalem. The British admired the “sisters” for being a role model for Palestinians and women in general.

Speed_Sisters_(5) (1)

Even more important, however, are the team’s family members. Marah’s father, a dentist, is also her biggest fan. Instead of buying a new house he used his savings for his daughter’s hobby. Her grandfather, on the other hand, is against racing for women and rather see his granddaughter study and become a doctor.

Markets and landing pads

Even if you do get the support of family, friends and community members, it’s hard to ignore the occupation and the problems that surround it. Traffic jams and check points are annoying. But soldiers firing teargas into demonstrators are nothing less than dangerous. Something Betty Saadeh unwillingly demonstrates, when she gets shot from behind, resulting in a painful bruise.

Another problem for racers is the lack of space. Where do you practice in a location as densely populated as the West Bank? And where do you compete? Vegetable markets and parking lots have already proven to be very useful. The main street of Nablus, the landing pad of the late Yasser Arafat’s helicopter in Bethlehem, … With a little imagination and a few chalk marks, every piece asphalt is a potential racetrack.

It’s not about the conflict

What makes Speed Sisters unique is that it gives us another look at life in the West Bank. Beyond the violence and demonstrations. As one of the sisters says in the movie: “What should we do, stop living?” In the end this documentary isn’t about the occupation, it’s about smashing stereotypes and about the struggles we all face in life: finding a balance between our hobby’s, career and family.

Amber Fares

Photographer and documentary filmmaker Amber Fares, who produced and directed this documentary, first got to know about the Speed Sisters when she was working in Palestine. She was invited to a race and was suprised to se all female team participating. We’re talking about the year 2009.

Starting in 2010, Amber Fares and her crew would follow the racing team for the next four years, resulting in a feature length documentary film. Speed Sisters has been playing in film festivals around the world, it won the Jury award at the Adelaide Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Irish Film Institute.

For more information about the film, you can check out the website or Facebook page of Speed Sisters.

Written by Wim Deloof

Avatar photo

Wim Deloof has studied audiovisual arts and continued in marketing and business administration. He's also into architecture and design.