In The West Bank, Women With A Need For Speed

  • Mona Ennab, a former beauty pageant contestant, has been racing for more than seven years. But this year she's found herself as part of a team, the Speed Sisters — a group of Palestinian female race car drivers that is breaking stereotypes in the Arab world's increasingly popular auto racing scene.
    Hide caption
    Mona Ennab, a former beauty pageant contestant, has been racing for more than seven years. But this year she's found herself as part of a team, the Speed Sisters — a group of Palestinian female race car drivers that is breaking stereotypes in the Arab world's increasingly popular auto racing scene.
    Photos by Maya Levin for NPR
  • Spectators cheer as a car speeds though a turn. While most of the men at the races applaud just as loudly for the female racers as for the men, some say they are uncomfortable with women at the racetrack.
    Hide caption
    Spectators cheer as a car speeds though a turn. While most of the men at the races applaud just as loudly for the female racers as for the men, some say they are uncomfortable with women at the racetrack.
  • Ennab looks over the track map before the race.
    Hide caption
    Ennab looks over the track map before the race.
  • The Speed Sisters race cars in Ramallah. The track is adjacent to the border with Israel and directly next to an Israeli prison that holds Palestinian prisoners.
    Hide caption
    The Speed Sisters race cars in Ramallah. The track is adjacent to the border with Israel and directly next to an Israeli prison that holds Palestinian prisoners.
  • The female race car drivers wait in their tent until it is their turn to race. In this season's races, nearly all the women fared well against the men, and one of the Speed Sisters earned a spot in the top 10 rankings.
    Hide caption
    The female race car drivers wait in their tent until it is their turn to race. In this season's races, nearly all the women fared well against the men, and one of the Speed Sisters earned a spot in the top 10 rankings.
  • A team member drinks water before the race. The women take pride in the fact that every member of the Speed Sisters has been issued speeding tickets while driving off the track.
    Hide caption
    A team member drinks water before the race. The women take pride in the fact that every member of the Speed Sisters has been issued speeding tickets while driving off the track.
  • Ennab, a former contestant for Miss Palestine, watches the race.
    Hide caption
    Ennab, a former contestant for Miss Palestine, watches the race.

1 of 7

View slideshow i

At a small dusty field just outside the West Bank city of Ramallah, mostly male spectators cheer and wave flags as a car speeds though a turn on the racetrack.

The car comes to a halt and the racer, 24-year-old Mona Ennab, jumps out. When she slides off her helmet and smiles at the crowd, it's not hard to see why she was a contestant for Miss Palestine, the West Bank's beauty pageant.

She's part of a team of Palestinian women competing in the West Bank's burgeoning professional car racing scene. After placing in the top 10 in several recent races, the female team has sped from curious anomaly to serious competition.

And the former beauty pageant contestant she says is proud of her skills behind the wheel.

"I was the first girl to make the race here in Palestine," Ennab says.

The Speed Sisters

Ennab says she has been racing for more than seven years. This year, she's part of a team, the Speed Sisters, a group of female race car drivers that is breaking stereotypes — and records, the women hope — in the Arab world's increasingly popular car racing scene.

Khaled Khadoura, head of the Palestinian Motorsport Federation, says that it took no time for women to move from novelty racers at the track to serious competitors. "I'm very proud to see our young women today taking an interest in race car driving, and training in order to improve themselves," Khadoura says.

The group has welcomed a new driver and potential teammate, Sahar Jawabrah, 44. She stands out as she wears an Islamic headscarf underneath her helmet on the track.

During the daytime she works in a library and tends to her four children, but she says she always fantasized about car racing. "Here you are alone, just alone, just one. It's more dangerous, it's better than going fast in the street," Jawabrah says.

As she takes her tiny Daewoo out for a trial run around the track, the engine stalls and she nervously jolts the car back to life. She doesn't place in the top bracket, but she finishes the race to the cheers of the other Speed Sisters.

Clerics, Some Men Disapprove

But not everyone is happy to see her on the track. Despite the growing popularity of racing across the Arab world, a number of Muslim clerics have spoken out against the sport.

Jawabrah says she's heard men call it haram, or forbidden, but she thinks they are ill-informed. There is nothing wrong with racing, she says.

While most of the men at the races applaud just as loudly for the female racers as for the men, some say they are uncomfortable with women at the racetrack.

Tareq Sarsou, a 33-year-old Ramallah store owner, says that while he was impressed by the sport, he isn't sure it's appropriate for Palestinian society. "I would not allow my wife, my sister or my daughter to race here," Sarsou says.

In this season's races, nearly all the women fared well against the men. And one of the Speed Sisters earned a spot in the top 10 rankings.

Like many of the women on the team, Ennab says she began her racing career almost by accident. "I love cars, I love speed, so I drive fast. And after they see me in Ramallah when I drive fast they told me to come to the federation and join," she says.

Channeling Road Rage

And by fast she means more than half a dozen speeding tickets off the track in a single month.

Nearly all the team members have similar stories. They take pride in the fact that every member of the Speed Sisters has been issued speeding tickets. Some, like Ennab, were told by police to speak to Khadoura about racing on the track.

Some of that training has come thanks to the British Consulate, which flew in two professional drivers for a two-day workshop with the Speed Sisters earlier this month.

Karen McLuskie, the British political consul, discovered the women last year and has since become a patron of the team.

"I think for me, driving isn't like any other sports; men and women can compete in the same race. And you know what — they're beginning to get there," McLuskie says. "At the beginning of the season we had one of our girls who won her category. And you should have seen the faces of those guys."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: