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Racing champ accelerates through gender barriers

Author: Robert Tait

Publication: The Age

Date: March 24, 2005

TEHRAN - Her first name is the Farsi word for tulip, the flower adopted by Iran's Islamic rulers as a revolutionary emblem, symbolising martyrs' blood.

But somehow it is hard to imagine that Laleh Seddigh is the poster child that the conservative mullahs - renowned for rigid views on female modesty and separation of the sexes - had in mind as they tried to mould the country into a strict religious state after the 1979 revolution.

In fact, Ms Seddigh has not so much circumvented Iran's longstanding gender barrier as blasted her way through it.

She has done so by surpassing a host of male competitors in a discipline at which many Iranian men excel: driving at breakneck speed with apparent blithe disregard for the consequences.

Last week Ms Seddigh, a 28-year-old PhD student in production management, became the first woman champion in an otherwise all-male field in a national speed race championship at Tehran's Azadi Stadium.

That success came after she finished first in a national rally competition. Doing her own pit-stop wheel and engine repairs, Ms Seddigh and her female navigator raced across a mixture of desert and frozen roads.

In the mayhem that passes for driving in Tehran's traffic-clogged streets, women drivers play a prominent role in a potentially lethal fast-moving mosaic where cars weave around with no respect for lane discipline or the possibility of collision.

I learned to drive when I was 13, Ms Seddigh said. I loved speed and driving fast. For a while I was driving without a licence. I was a teenage rebel.

Rebellion came at a price. One crash resulted in a metal plate being inserted in her leg. In another, she suffered a broken neck, but Ms Seddigh is now profiting from these experiences.

As she sits in one of north Tehran's small but growing number of chic coffee shops, Ms Seddigh could easily pass for a self-confident young woman in any Western capital - except, perhaps, for the exquisitely patterned head-scarf that only partially conceals her raven-black hair, in accordance with Iran's Islamic dress code.

She is a picture of radiant glamour. Despite the Western stereotype of Iran as a country of women clad in tent-like black chadors, this is a common look in Tehran's prosperous suburbs.

I have always liked to do those things that traditionally belonged to men, or which are supposed to be beyond the physical capabilities of a woman, she said. When I was a kid, I always played with boys. I suppose I was a bit of a tomboy. My father used to introduce me to people as his son, joking that it was only be accident that I was a girl. I definitely enjoy the challenge of competing against men.

Her success in racing has attracted hostility from male competitors. When she won the rally championship, some suggested collusion with the male driver who came second.

By her achievements, Ms Seddigh has been hailed as a symbol of hope that women in Iran can attain equality with men.

In a system where a woman's testimony in court is worth only half that of a man and where a wife has to have her husband's permission to travel abroad, that may be stretching things.

Yet she believes that women in Iran can compete and succeed. Things are not so much restricted, she said. If women are not making ground in society, the fault goes back to the women themselves. It's a case of supply and demand. If the women do not demand their rights, they won't be supplied. There are restrictions here because of religion. That slows down the pace of change, but it doesn't stop it.

Nevertheless, she is aware that her success is built on unsure foundations. After her triumph, she was reminded of her status in the form of strictures from the Iranian motor racing body that she behave appropriately on the winners' podium.

I was told to wear my manteau (a long coat that conceals the outlines of the body) over my racing outfit and not to talk or laugh with the male competitors, she said.
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