Iran is a country of excellent drivers. If you’ve ever climbed into a Tehran taxi and saw your life flash before your eyes as the driver wove madly in and out of traffic, headed the wrong way down one-way streets, ignored red lights, and seemed bent on breaking the sound barrier, this statement may be difficult to believe. The statistics would back up your impression: 28,000 fatal accidents per year nationwide, according to 2008 figures. And yet to simply survive everyday traffic in an Iranian city, a driver must have great reflexes and strong driving skills.
One of Iran’s most fearless drivers is Laleh Seddigh, the country’s top female race-car driver, who can negotiate congestion on Vali-Asr Avenue as easily as she does a racetrack. Her friends joke that she learned her skills on the streets of Tehran, where anything goes.
Seddigh (whose first name, Laleh, means tulip in Farsi) is the eldest of four and the daughter of an industrialist whose four factories produce furnaces and engine parts. She learned to drive at the age of 13 and totaled her first car at 17, when she smashed into a tree and broke her leg in four places. (Yes, I know that doesn’t sound like good driving, but she improved.)
She began her racing career in 2000, at the age of 23, but was only allowed to compete against other women at first. Then, in 2004, she petitioned the Iranian Racing Federation to let her participate in men’s races. Her timing was good. The reformist era under President Khatami had not yet come to an end, and many of the restrictive Islamic rules were being relaxed, with Internet cafes, coffee bars, and women in tight-fitting hejab common sights in Tehran. Seddigh explained to the board that separation of the sexes was not in keeping with the president’s reform efforts, and she pointed out that the Federation officials would enter the history books as the people who allowed men and women to race together.
Still, she needed clerical approval, so Seddigh and her father asked an ayatollah to issue a fatwa (religious degree) stating that male and female race-car drivers competing together was in keeping with Islamic principles. The ayatollah agreed with the stipulation that the female athletes adhere to the Islamic dress code. Not a difficult proposal, considering that even the men are covered from head to toe in helmets, gloves, and fireproof suits.
When her petition was approved, Seddigh became the first female athlete to compete against men in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, not only in auto racing but in any other sport as well.
But she still had more obstacles to overcome. After completing her first mixed-gender race, in which she placed third, not one of her competitors congratulated her, and she was disciplined after waving to her jubilant female fans. Every time she wins a race, the TV networks suspend live coverage of the awards ceremony to avoid giving her publicity. You’d think the lack of coverage would make her victory seem a much bigger event that it actually is. After all, when does live programming ever get interrupted except to announce a huge event: a devastating earthquake, the death of a president, the signing of a peace accord?
In 2007, Seddigh was banned from racing for a year for a technical violation. Under international racing rules, every car must have its engine sealed prior to entering a race to ensure that no illegal modifications are performed at the last minute. When Seddigh’s first-line car developed mechanical trouble, she used an alternate that had no engine seal. Although she received advance approval for the alternate car, after the race, the Iranian Racing Federation ruled that she’d been competing in the wrong category and imposed the year-long-ban. This event occurred after the conservative president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took office, which raises speculation that the Federation was looking for a way to get rid of this high-profile, female competitor.
Seddigh protested and pointed out that men had also used alternate cars with unsealed engines in previous races but had only been fined for the violation not banned from the sport.
These days, she’s back on the circuit, though. Earlier this year, Seddigh earned her International Racing Driving License during the BMW School Series in Bahrain and can apply her skills at the international level.
Now that Laleh Seddigh has not only broken through Iran’s formidable gender barrier but made it onto the international circuit as well, we can expect to see a lot more of the fastest woman in Iran.