These Badass Women Race Cars In The West Bank

Photo: Courtesy: of Tanya Habjouqa.
Racer Betty Saadeh at a junkyard. Saadeh is one of the Speed Sisters, the first all-women car racing team in the Middle East.
It was a Thursday night on the streets of Ramallah, in the West Bank. Everyone was out on the streets. The boys were revving up the engines on their souped-up BMWs and Fiats, showing off new tricks. Noor Daoud got caught up in the frenzy and excitement in the air and jumped into her own car to try her hand at some tricks of her own. "That’s when Khaled Quaddoura, the founder of the Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Foundation, saw me. And next thing I know, I’m one of the first female car racers in Palestine," 24-year-old Daoud told Refinery29. Almost six years later, Daoud is a member of the Speed Sisters, the first all-female car racing team in the Arab world. Founded in 2010, the team consists of drivers Marah Zahalka, Mona Ali, Betty Saadeh, and Noor Dauod. It is managed by Maysoon Jayyusi. The women race against other teams in the West Bank in autocross car races organized by the Palestinian Motor Sports and Motorcycle Foundation. Every year, they also compete against each other for the title of "fastest woman."

When I sit in my car, it doesn’t know whether I’m a guy or girl. Being at the track is like being at home.

Noor Daoud, Speed Sister
Over the years, the trail-blazing Speed Sisters have made quite a name for themselves. Now, their escapades are being captured in an all-new documentary by Canadian-Lebanese filmmaker Amber Fares. The film premiered in the U.S. to rave reviews at the DOC NYC festival in November. "A friend invited me to a race [in Ramallah], but I didn’t expect a huge festival out on the streets! That’s when I met some of the girls," Fares told Refinery29. The meeting made a lasting impression on Fares, so she decided to create a documentary about how a group of Palestinian women broke into the male-dominated world of car racing and drifting. "I can’t name five racecar drivers in Canada that are women, and yet these women are doing it in the West Bank," Fares said. While the women come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, they have all made sacrifices to achieve their dreams.
Photo: Courtesy of Speed Sisters.
19-year-old racer Marah Zahalka gets ready to drive.
"Marah’s father grew up in the refugee camps and is a dental technician who gave up building a house to support her racing aspirations,” explained Fares. "Her grandfather was really against racing, but her father supported her. She won and is now quite respected in Jenin, where she’s from." Daoud comes from a wealthy family in Jerusalem, but also faced her share of obstacles before becoming a Speed Sister. "I was really young when I started collecting cars. But I never thought I would be a racer one day,” said Daoud. "I’ve had so many negative people talking about me, saying I wasted my life. But over time, I earned respect. Now, they understand what I do." Through their racing prowess, the women have succeeded in shattering gender stereotypes and gaining support from other racers, as well. "Of course, there’s this idea in the Middle East that women shouldn’t be racing in the street. But a vast majority support what they are doing. These girls are following their passion and people really respect that," Fares said.

I’ve had so many negative people talking about me, saying I wasted my life. But over time, I earned respect. Now, they understand what I do.

Noor Daoud, Speed Sister
But aside from gender stereotypes, there are a multitude of other challenges the Speed Sisters must confront on a daily basis. Life in the West Bank is notoriously difficult — residents must pass through military checkpoints and face extreme shortages and economic hardship. To stage and practice car racing and drifting in the midst of all this takes creativity. There are no official racetracks, so the Palestinian Motor Federation sets up in controlled spaces or closes off main streets to create makeshift racecourses. The Speed Sisters and other racing teams sometimes practice on stretches of land next to Israeli military compounds, which has proven to be dangerous. In one part of the film, one of the racers, Betty, gets hit by a tear gas canister fired by a soldier. "We used to train in Ramallah, in a small parking lot, right in front of the checkpoint. But after Betty got shot, we stopped going there," Daoud said. Money is also tight. Because it is difficult to afford top-notch vehicles, the racers are constantly repairing their cars themselves and helping others do the same.
Photo: Courtesy of Speed Sisters.
Driver Noor Daoud waves her hand out the window during a drifting competition in Jordan.
"Since 2010, I’ve had sponsors in Palestine. But this year, it’s not going well because of what’s going on. They didn’t give me the amount I needed, so I can’t fix my car, which badly needs repair," Daoud said. In Fares' film, the Speed Sisters are seen navigating the social, economic, and political struggles of living and racing in occupied Palestine. But ultimately, the film showcases how women like Daoud can still achieve their dreams despite severe hardships. "When I sit in my car, it doesn’t know whether I’m a guy or girl. Being at the track is like being at home," said Daoud. Fares said she hopes the film will inspire viewers to see the Middle East — and Palestine in particular — through a different lens. "It’s a positive, uplifting story from a place where we don’t see a lot of positive stories," said Fares.

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