Women Arab sport drivers racing v taboos
Amman - Some are professionals; others are housewives but they turn into monstrous driving machines when they take the wheels of a 300-horsepower, four-cylinder, 1.6-litre turbocharged beast.
Female Arab race car drivers are determined to ride out the cultural taboos, especially in conservative societies, where some ban women from driving a car, let alone racing one.
Jordan’s Nancy al-Majali, 40, a veteran and dedicated rally driver, said family support helped her dreams.
“I loved cars since I was a little girl. Instead of playing with dolls, I used to play with cars and dream of driving fast,” Majali, who entered her 14th Jordan rally this year, said.
“This dream was made possible because of the encouragement of my parents and friends plus my determination.
“At first, some people were sceptical what a girl can do in a man’s world,” she said. “But I crossed this border and established an all-women team with my friend Nadia Shnoudeh.”
Majali, who came third in 2015’s Jordan Rally as the co-driver to Husam Salem, said there were no limits to Arab women in sports.
“Women in the Middle East have a lot to achieve. Many have already succeeded in the business world and made it even better than men. Women can also excel in sports and auto sports is one of them but society needs to give them the space to achieve their goal,” she said.
According to Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, the governing body for many auto racing events, Majali ranked 10th out of 12 in the drivers’ classification of the 2011 FIA Middle East Rally Championship, the only woman on the list.
Nada Zeidan, who was born in Lebanon and became one of the first female Arab rally drivers, says she and other women drivers can serve as role models. Born to a Qatari father and a Turkish mother, Zeidan rose to stardom, participating in numerous rallies around the Arab world.
Zeidan, who moved to Qatar when she was 4, won the Middle East Rally Championship in Dubai in 2004 and ladies’ cups in the Middle East Rally Championships in Lebanon and Syria. She retired in 2010 after a fulfilling rally career.
“Of course, having an icon such as Nada, who was also selected as a torchbearer to carry the Olympic flame in the UK as it made its way towards London for the 2012 Olympics, inspires many young girls to head to sports,” Majali said.
“We need more women icons.”
Abir Battikhi, another Jordanian female driver who spent years rallying, became the first Arab woman to participate in round one of the FIA World Rally Championship.
“In the past, it was not easy to see a girl competing against men in a sports that was labelled as men’s sport,” Battikhi said. “I faced many challenges from family and friends but I managed to pursue my dream and prove that girls can achieve many things.”
Battikhi, who came in the 15th overall, first among women and third among Jordanians in Jordan Rally 2007, said: “The society can play a big role in encouraging women or discouraging them. The Arab world is filled with talented females, who can make a difference.”
Heba Sabbagh, a sports journalist with Al Rai newspaper, said female drivers face more difficulties than men in securing financial support in what is an experience sport.
“But the private sector should support females more because there’s a great talent there,” she said.
As for the society, she said female racers hoped that people would look beyond the gender to see what they are capable of. “The best example of support is the father-daughter (Jordanian) team of Raed and Marina Habaybeh,” she said.
Jordanian medical student Lina Hadidi is one of the new generation of drivers who are entering the sport with confidence.
“My mother, Abir Battikhi, is the biggest reason for me to be sitting in the driver’s seat. Her encouragement and support are unmatched. I am learning a lot and enjoying what I am doing,” Hadidi said.
With a male co-driver, Hadidi says that sharing experience is good.
“My co-driver, Barkev Shadian, is a champion of speed test events with experience in auto sports. When it comes to learning, there is nothing better than having a strong partner assist you in the curves,” she said.
Another successful Arab woman driver is UAE’s Marwa al-Eifa, 34, who won the First International Women’s Rally held in Dubai in 2005. The Saudi-born Eifa raised eyebrows with her driving skills at the rally.
Kuwait’s Kholoud Abdullatif’s talent was recognised when her husband and rally driver Tariq al- Alayan asked her to be his co-driver. “It was an exciting moment,” she said.