The Iranian motorbike champion fighting gender discrimination

The Iranian motorbike champion fighting gender discrimination

Behnaz Shafiei is racing, not just for the chequered flag, but to overturn misogyny worldwide.

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Once night has fallen and the streets have emptied of vehicles, Tehran’s motorways become a playground for many young Iranians. Escaping the day-to-day pressures of life, car drivers and motorbike riders rip around the highways at high speed, under the cover of darkness. Clup Ninja, a Tehran motorbike crew with over 400 members, descends on the city, en masse, three nights a week, holding drag races on the empty motorways. Among this swarm of superbikes and smoking rubber, Behnaz Shafiei, on her metallic blue Yamaha YZF-R25, is the only woman.

“When I ride my motorbike, this happiness and energy intensifies,” Behnaz explains. “With the adrenaline rush, all my problems vanish and I think of nothing but to ride. It gives me a sense of flying and freedom, a sense of power, a sense of having the whole world under my feet. I extremely enjoy it.” Globally, motorsport remains a boy’s club and it’s still pretty rare to see female riders. But in Iran, it’s almost unheard of, as women are prohibited from obtaining motorbike licences. Behnaz is breaking the law and risks arrest every time she rides on the streets.

In 2015, Behnaz became the first female professional motorbike racer in the Islamic Republic and the Middle East. Ever since she started riding motorbikes, in secret, 19 years ago, Behnaz has been breaking down barriers for women. After years as one of the few outspoken voices calling for greater female participation in Iranian sport, she has confronted resistance from many quarters, from everyday misogyny to state power. With few allies to count on, Behnaz has shared her story to inspire other women to ride and used her growing public platform to call for an end to gender discrimination. Yet, despite being crowned Iranian female champion, competing internationally and interviews with national newspapers and on state TV, Behnaz and all Iranian women are still denied licences to ride legally on the streets — an injustice Behnaz remains determined to overturn.

Behnaz was born and raised in Karaj, near Tehran, in the shadows of the Atashgah mountains. Her mother says her passion for motorbikes began early. When she was just two or three, Behnaz would scream and shout whenever she saw a motorbike go by. Eventually, her parents succumbed to Behnaz’s demands and took her for a ride on the back of one — sealing a passion for life.

In Iran, women can drive cars but are prohibited from riding motorbikes, so Behnaz spent her childhood without thinking that she, herself, could ride. “When I was 15, I was on holiday with my family in Zanjan province and I met a lady in a village who was riding a motorbike,” Behnaz remembers. “When I saw her, it sparked the idea of me riding one. I was so interested and decided that one day, I wanted to be a motorcycle champion.”

But the scale of obstacles that stood in Behnaz’s way were immense. With both riding motorbikes on the streets and racing prohibited for women, she was forced to practise at night and fly under the radar. She borrowed her brother’s bike and with no idea about safety equipment, she rode with only a tracksuit and motorcycle helmet. “I was riding with all my heart,” she remembers. “But I was scared because it was illegal for women to engage in this activity.”

Once Behnaz had built up more confidence and saved money from her job in accountancy, she bought her own bike, a TVS Apache 180cc, and full protective gear. Covered head-to-toe, nobody could tell that she was a woman, so she began to ride more and more intensely in the mountains near her home.

Female participation in sport has been growing over the years but remains heavily restricted by the Iranian state on religious grounds, with strict enforcement of female clothing regulations “for modesty” and separation of the sexes. Women are only allowed to compete in specific sports, from martial arts to car rallies, usually without men in the audience, and religious hardliners push back strongly against any attempts to increase equality in sport. But back then, Behnaz didn’t realise women were banned from competing on motorbikes until she approached the Iranian sports ministry. “Why can’t women race?” Behnaz remembers asking. “There is no good reason why not,” she told herself — and the ministry.

Iranian women have been arrested after riding motorbikes and accused of committing an “obscene act” by police. Behnaz soon understood the radicalism of what she was doing but grew increasingly determined to smash down the barriers that stood in the way of her and other women. “I realised I would have to liberate the sport so that I could participate in competitions and achieve my childhood dream,” Behnaz explains. “I don’t understand why the simplest form of citizenship rights is banned for women in Iran. It was not acceptable for me then and is not acceptable to me today.”

Behnaz became the first Iranian woman motorcyclist to win permission to practise on off-road tracks, then to compete in men’s races. She remembers that the sports ministry was insistent that she remain covered and wore the hijab at all times.... before realising that motorbike protective gear covers the entire body. While Shafiei and a small but growing number of other female motocross riders could join clubs, they were barred from the crowning heights: Tehran’s impressive, male-only Azadi sport complex. Instead, they had to practise on rough-and-ready tracks, such as Behnaz’s local track in Karaj, which had no proper medical facilities.

Behnaz helped organise a growing group of female motocross riders to prove there was hunger to race and shatter the sports ministry’s argument that motorbike racing was not a sport for women. They rallied their supporters, wrote letters and paid repeated visits to the ministry. After three years of sustained pressure, the ministry finally gave in and allowed the race to go ahead.

“I like to keep on proving that women can do what has been restricted for them and more; we can do what society so often likes to label ‘unsuitable for women’,’” Behnaz says. “I’ve spent my life battling men who refused to see women as empowered and strong, men who were complete misogynists. However, I proved myself by practising and insisting on what I aspired to achieve. Over time, this changed their fixed mindsets about women like me.”

Aged 27, Behnaz staged the first all-female motocross race in Iran in 2015. 30 women applied to join and 15 were selected to take their positions on the start line. All organisers and spectators were women, too — with men barred from the track throughout, upon orders of the sports ministry. When heavy snowfall covered the track, local men used it as an excuse to call for cancellation of the race. “Every single woman involved was determined this race would go ahead,” Behnaz remembers. In sub-zero temperatures, they cleared the track with shovels, mopped up the puddles and put out tires around the track by hand.

Behnaz stormed to victory, claiming the chequered flag and becoming the first Iranian female champion. But victory was not hers alone: it led to winning access to the Azadi stadium for women and removing a host of other restrictions on women in motorbike racing. Becoming Iranian champion secured Behnaz international recognition and she was profiled by The Guardian, BBC and other international outlets. She has since connected with female motorbiking communities around the world on social media and even had the opportunity to carry the 2018 Winter Olympics torch in Seoul, South Korea. Behnaz now also races superbikes as well as motocross and competes internationally in the USA, Germany, Dubai and China — although without official permission from the Iranian Federation, she participates as a free agent.

“The fact that I could change the law limiting women in my country in the history of motorbike riding is what I’m still most proud of,“ Behnaz reflects. “I did what nobody thought of and what nobody actually dared to do. I am beyond happy I got to be an inspiration and a symbol for Iranian women, showing them the path to freedom.”

On September 16, 2022 news broke that 22-year-old Mahsa Amini had died in custody following her arrest by the Gasht-e-Ershad, Iran’s morality police, for “improperly wearing her hijab.” Protests broke out in Tehran and soon erupted across the country in solidarity with Jina, Mahsa’s Kurdish name, which is forbidden for being “foreign and un-Islamic.” Led by women, protests have been galvanised by the slogan ‘Zan

Zendegi, Azadi’ in Farsi or ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’. Despite brutal crackdowns by the state, with women and girls beaten, incarcerated and even killed, the movement continues.

Western media often presents Muslim women as silent and passive but there is a rich history of courageous acts of individual and collective protest by women throughout Iranian history — which Behnaz’s personal struggle fits into. The symbolic hair-cutting that became iconic around the world during recent protests dates back to 1010 AD and the poem ‘Shahnameh’, in which Farangis cuts off her hair to protest and mourn the killing of her husband. After World War II, Iranian women won ever-greater rights and made significant advances towards equality, even after the US and UK-backed coup against the democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 and imposition of the autocratic Shah. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution overthrew the Shah. A month after Ayatollah Khomeini’s rise to power, the International Women’s Day celebrations on March 8, 1979 grew into six days of enormous protests against the enforcement of new modesty rules for women. Yet, despite ongoing resistance, the wearing of the Hijab was made compulsory in 1983.

This generation of highly educated Iranian women and girls are refusing to accept constraints on their lives and the curtailment of their rights. This has become the longest-running major uprising against the Islamic Republic and many men have also joined protests against rules that limit women’s freedom of movement, rights to bodily autonomy and access to the labour market. Behnaz has spent years as one of the few voices calling publicly for more rights and opportunities for women in Iran. So, how does she feel now, seeing hundreds of thousands of young Iranian women taking to the streets to demand equality? “Let me not answer this question, due to the trouble it may cause concerning the political issues in my country,” Behnaz says.

Behnaz is forced to tread a difficult line, knowing that repercussions for being too outspoken could result in her blossoming career being snatched away — or worse. She chooses to answer in general terms. “I have never understood restrictions for specific genders,” Behnaz explains. “There have been so many times when men outdid women in so-called ‘feminine’ activities and women outdid men in ‘masculine’ tasks. The world will be a better place when we abolish this mindset, when we rid the world of gender discrimination and all humans have equal rights. I hope one day all women in Iran and across the Middle East can reach their goals, meet their needs, decide freely for themselves and live happily and carefree.

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