When Suna Aweidah pulls on her red overalls and slips behind the wheel of her car next Friday, she will empty her mind of everything but the race ahead. But there will be an indelible nugget of pride that she and her team, the Speed Sisters, are breaking through the traditional conservatism of Palestinian society to compete in a motor racing event on an equal basis with men.
As she eases her Opel Corsa on to the Ramallah race track, she will block out the yells of “Suna, yallah!” (“Let’s go!”), and focus on the map of the course she has memorised, and the techniques she has learned from British instructors.
“When I’m racing, I feel freedom. I love speed. When I’m on the track I can break the rules,” she said.
The Speed Sisters comprise eight women, aged 18 to 39, Muslim and Christian. They are starting to get attention, practical backing and the adoration of crowds on what is unsurprisingly a male-dominated motor racing circuit.
Friday’s race, the biggest in which the female racers have participated, will be their first as a team, and their first since undergoing two days of training in the West Bank by two British instructors.
Men and women compete on an equal basis but, Aweidah says, the men have more expensive, modified cars. Aweidah now has a dedicated car in which to race, but for years relied on the loan of spare vehicles from a car rental firm, Dallah. A supporter has also donated an old BMW for training and racing.
The women have the backing of the British consulate in East Jerusalem, which has invested about £6,500 in helmets, training and revamping the BMW. “They are a positive role model for women and all Palestinians,” said consulate spokeswoman Karen McLuskie. “They are inspiring in a conflict zone where fun is low on the priority list.”
For team captain Aweidah, Friday’s race will be the highest point of her struggle to fulfil her ambition to be a driver. She has wanted to be behind a wheel since she was a girl watching drivers in her town of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem. “I love driving. I love cars. It’s in my blood – it’s stronger than me,” she said.
When the Palestinian Motor Sport Federation was established in 2005, Aweidah hoped to participate. But her family was reluctant.
A year later she was invited to a women-only go-kart competition in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. “I told my family, I insist on going. We have no go-karts in the West Bank, I had only ever seen a picture of one. I had no idea how to drive one, or what the rules were.” Aweidah came sixth in a field of 18. Her family grew more supportive. Her first race in the West Bank was in 2006 when, to her astonishment, she found two other women participating.
“The men found it strange, but they said let them come. After a while we proved ourselves, and they were OK. We started asking them for tips like when to use the handbrake.”
Most of her friends were supportive. “Some said we’re proud of you because you do what we can’t. Some of my married friends would like to race but their husbands won’t allow it. But some women said this is a man’s sport.”
With the British consulate’s encouragement, the female drivers finally formed a team. British trainers and former competitors Helen Elstrop and Sue Sanders spent last weekend, courtesy of the consulate, building on the women’s basic driving skills and mental preparation for racing.
“The strength of character they’ve shown, not only on the track but in their lives in general, is phenomenal,” said Elstrop. She was surprised to discover how positive and supportive the “boys” were. “They want to see the girls compete at a higher level.”
The women, she says, were “like sponges” in the training sessions. “They are astounding, a phenomenal set of girls. We are definitely sisters in speed.”
The youngest of the team is Marah Zahalka, 18, a business student at Bir Zeit University whose mother is a driving instructor. Another team-member, Mona Ennab, 24, is supported at races by her mother and aunts clad in traditional Palestinian dress. Betty Saadeh, 29, comes from a racing family: her father was a rally champion in Mexico and her brother was the 2009 autocross champion in the West Bank.
Aweidah – who lives with her parents and two of her siblings, and works for the UN Relief and Works Agency – believes the success and acceptance of the Speed Sisters is an indication of progress in Palestinian society. “It’s getting easier for Palestinian women to do the things they want, not only in sport but in life. Palestinian women are proving themselves more and more.”
She hopes one day to be able to represent Palestine in competitions abroad. “And to have our own state so we could invite other countries to compete.”
For now, though, she is focusing on next Friday. “We’re on the first step still, but – inshallah – we will reach the stars.”