Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Hundreds of people have gathered along a closed-off street on a Friday morning to watch a street racing event. Among the drivers are four women representing the “Speed Sisters”, the first all-female racing team in the Middle East who have helped propel the nascent Palestinian racing scene into the international spotlight while breaking stereotypes.
Lined up at the start are the cars: Volkswagens, Peugeots, BMWs – everyday vehicles save the stripped down interiors, souped-up engines, and body work including window decals of Yasser Arafat and portraits of drivers superimposed in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Throngs of fans have gathered around the Speed Sisters, a group of women comprised of Betty Saadeh , Noor Dawood , Mona Ennab and Marah Zahalka . The team was formed in 2009 with the help of the British consulate in Jerusalem, and is seen as a success story in a region that has few.
“It’s crazy, the love we get in Palestine,” said Betty, posing next to her car with big blonde hair, make-up, painted nails, lip gloss, and a bright red racing suit. “It has been a blessing.”
The crowd’s attention turns to the track as they announce the next driver over the loudspeaker. A car with the words “white girls” scrawled across the side inches up to the start to begin the speed test – an individual timed race through a closed course. The driver speeds through it, weaving through cones, drifting around turns, then races back towards the starting line, leaving behind a cloud of smoke.
The government provides little financial support. Restrictions from the Israeli side as far as vehicles exiting into Jordan or Israel have become a major obstacle ... It is very hard to get vehicles out of Palestine.
This is the fourth of five street racing events that make up the Palestinian championship, with the final to be held in Jericho on November 15.
An enthusiastic crowd has gathered to watch the event. Khaled Qaddoura, a co-founder and long-time chairman of Palestine Motor Sports Federation, spoke to Al Jazeera about the evolution of the sport.
“It was challenging at the beginning. No one had done anything like this, but as the years went by we were able build something. The Speed Sisters have brought much attention to our small federation. It’s been a great thing.”
Yet economic and political pressure make racing in the West Bank a uniquely difficult endeavour.
“The tool is the car, and it’s extremely expensive,” Qaddoura said. “The government provides little financial support. Restrictions from the Israeli side as far as vehicles exiting into Jordan or Israel have become a major obstacle. In general, it is very hard to get the vehicles out of Palestine.”
These types of restrictions inhibit drivers with West Bank IDs from racing in other parts of the world, including Israel. Israeli law forbids Palestinians with green plates to drive in Israeli territories, and even crossing into Jordan, the only other country in which West Bank racers can compete, is difficult.
Since the Second Intifada, Israel has systematically closed off the West Bank, culminating in the construction of the separation barrier that spans nearly 500km, mostly inside the 1967 armistice line – severely restricting Palestinian travel into Israel and Jerusalem. Israeli citizens are restricted from entering Area A, the 18 percent of the Palestinian territories that is under full Palestinian control.
Noor, the only Speed Sister with an Israeli ID, has faced challenges when racing in Israel.
“I was the only Palestinian racing against six Israeli girls. They didn’t want a Palestinian to take it – they insulted me, tried to discourage me, did everything they could to make the situation difficult. Then coming back to Ramallah was the same. I got a lot of criticism from Palestinians for racing in Israel, even though I made it clear I was racing for Palestine.
“That’s the problem: Everything you want to do involves politics here … Let’s just forget about that and play sports. But it’s not easy. Being a racer in Palestine is political. Being a women … here that is political as well.”
Today the Speed Sisters are icons in the Palestinian sporting world. Yet gender politics have always been a part of their story: navigating conservative Palestinian society and competing in a sport that is traditionally dominated by men.
We would still hear things like you should be in the home cooking, negative things. But we let our racing do the talking.
Mona, the first and only female racer for nearly three years, said she started racing illegally in 2004.
“Then I met the manager of the federation, he asked me to come and train with the boys. It was just me and the boys for almost four years. It was difficult for me – they didn’t accept me for the first few years. Even later when the other girls arrived, we would still hear things like you should be in the home cooking, negative things. But we let our racing do the talking.”
While all the women speak of their support from fans and families, societal pressure has affected the composition of the racing team over the years.
The group reached a high of eight members in 2010, but today only four remain. Some got married or stopped for other reasons. “In this society with marriage, commitment to the house, the culture itself can make it difficult to stay in the sport,” said Qaddoura.
While the difficulties of being a female racer in the Occupied Territories are obvious, what is more clear is how much the Speed Sisters have become a beloved component of the Palestinian racing scene.
As Betty put it: “Our fans are incredible and always have been. It means a lot to have come this far, to break down barriers like this, to provide a different identity to Palestinian women than what gets portrayed in the media.”
Racing can also be both a means of resistance and an outlet. “We [Palestinians] value our freedom and that’s what driving is to me,” said Mona.
“When I drive I feel free from pressure of life, from the political situation, from everything. That’s what this is about for every one of us drivers.”