News / Middle East

Palestinian Women with a Need for Speed

Members of the Speed Sisters
Members of the Speed Sisters

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A different kind of racing team is speeding into the world of motorsports in the West Bank.

Out of the BMW racing car steps the driver, wearing a yellow and black racing suit. With sunglasses and a helmet, no one would notice anything unusual, until the driver removes the helmet. With a curly ponytail and a grin from ear to ear, female racing team captain Suna Aweidah waves to the crowd of onlookers.

Aweidah is a part of a group of women known as the Speed Sisters. The eight-member, all-female Palestinian motorsports team is racing through gender barriers in the West Bank. For Suna Aweidah, the Speed Sisters are a dream come true and the highest point in her struggle to fulfill an ambition of becoming a racecar driver. But as she explains, not everyone in the West Bank was equally excited to see females on the male-dominated racing track.

"My family was not happy for me to start participating in this kind of sport, because it was: I will race individually and because it was unforeseen and not safe and mainly for men and all of this. So now I'm adding this team, this I think, will encourage more of the girls as a family to participate and join the team," she said.

The Speed Sisters, aged 18 to 39, are Muslims and Christians; from all walks of life. A former beauty pageant contestant, mothers, a librarian, a business student, and two drivers who were born into racing families have come together to form the Speed Sisters.  Aweidah says, while in the driver's seat of a racing car, there is no difference between men and women.

"This means, for us and for me, this means to prove that a woman can do what they want, whenever they want. And there is no sport that is especially for men or especially for women. I think that driving - many of the people think that driving is just for men. I don't think that. Driving is for women, for men, it's a sport. And we can compete with men in all kinds of sports," she said.

In June, the Speed Sisters became the first all-female racing team to compete in the Speed Test, a popular race in West Bank. The Speed Test takes place on a homemade track full of obstacles and twists and turns, through which contestants weave in and out at breath-taking speeds. Even though the Speed Sisters faced some mechanical problems, a team member finished in the top 10, a feat that no one expected them to accomplish.

Some of the success of the Speed Sisters comes from a relationship they developed with renowned British professional race driving instructor Helen Elstrop. She gave the Speed Sisters driving lessons.  They also got funding to buy a racecar from the British Consulate in Jerusalem.   Sue Sanders, a senior figure in British motorsports, mentored the Speed Sisters and knew right away they had what it took to overcome the gender barrier in the world of car racing.

"When Suna, particularly said to me, 'I really want to be best.' It was just an instant affinity. And it really didn't matter whether we had the same language or the same culture, but we actually had the same passion and the same desires to achieve things. So there was no gap. It didn't matter about anything else at all. That gap was completely eliminated," she said.

The Speed Sisters have adorned their racecar with the Palestinian flag and the British flag and say they are proud to join an international sisterhood of speed. Sanders and the rest of the British Women in Motorsports group understand the difficulties the Palestinian women face and are proud to help them, seeing no difference between themselves and the female racecar drivers far away in the West Bank.

"For the ladies in Palestine, having Helen and I there, they were able to see that, yes they have a lot of difficulties in their country and yes, they have so many more hurdles to overcome and they still have some of those prejudices they have to deal with. But actually, in our own way, even in the UK, we've had some of those things and yet we've still been able to get there. We've still been able to achieve the end results. They have kind spirits. There are a lot of miles between us, but actually not a lot of distance between us in mentality," Sanders said.

Suna Aweidah and her fellow Speed Sisters hope one day to represent the West Bank in competitions abroad.

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