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From Palestine’s sand-swept circuit to the global stage: The Speed Sisters

Checkpoints and social barriers can't slow down the Middle East's first all-women racing team, the Speed Sisters, as they race along West Bank's tire-worn tracks.

The Speed Sisters, the Middle East’s first all-women racing team, captured the world’s imagination when Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares propelled them onto the global stage through an eponymous documentary.

Despite a tangle of roadblocks and checkpoints, a thriving street car racing scene has emerged in the West Bank. Held at improvised tracks – a vegetable market, an old helicopter pad, a security academy – the races offer a release from the pressures and uncertainties of life under military occupation.

A chance encounter in Palestine thrust Amber Fares right into the midst of the local street car racing circuit. As Fares learned more about the strength and resilience of five female racers, the idea for a documentary began to take shape.

A race track in Jericho. Image: Tanya Habjouqa

“Soon after arriving in the West Bank, I met a woman who was part of the local street car racing circuit. She invited me to come to a race in Jenin, which had a reputation for being a tough and defiant place,” Fares says.

“I was surprised by the scene: not only are there are women racecar drivers in Palestine, but the guys are helping them and cheering them on!”

Breaking barriers

The Speed Sisters are Middle East’s first all-women racecar driving team, but there’s more to these strong-willed and powerful women than being a minority group in a fiercely male-dominated sport.

Founded in Palestine in 2009 with the support of the British Consulate in Jerusalem, the Speed Sisters is headed up by team captain, Suna Aweidah, who describes her role in the team as “a dream come true”. Because the British Consulate in Jerusalem funded a race car for them, the team decorates the car with both Palestinian and British flags.

Unlike Marah’s supportive family in the documentary, Aweidah says that her “family was not happy for (her) to start participating in this kind of sport.” She couldn’t deny her passion, however, and went on to head up the Speed Sisters.

The head of the Palestinian Motorsport Federation, Khaled Khadoura, says that the women are serious competitors in the circuit and that he is “very proud to see young women today taking an interest in race car driving, and training in order to improve themselves.”

The team, which has already broken stereotypes in a male-dominated society, is breaking more by welcoming Sahar Jawabrah, its first member to wear the hijab.

That said, it hasn’t been easy for the Speed Sisters to reach equal footing with male racers. Now, with international fame and attention, racers in Palestine and the Middle East seem to begrudgingly support the same women most labeled as ‘rebellious’ and un-Arab. Some Muslim clerics have condemned it for being frivolous and un-Islamic, while others call it haram under according to Islamic law.Even so, the strength and resilience of the Speed Sisters serve as inspiration for girls all around the world, let alone the Middle East.  There have only been 87 female racecar drivers in the world since Janet Guthrie first took the wheel in a 1976 NASCAR race in the US. A quick online search of women in racing will pull up multiple websites listing female racecar drivers in order of “hotness” and physical appeal rather than their abilities and successes.

Five stories, one compelling message

Fares’ 2015 film, Speed Sisters, provides a glimpse into what goes on along the sand-swept makeshift race tracks in conflict-riddled Palestine. She peers into the women behind the helmets and the meaning behind what their fans and critics have to say.

“Over four years, I got to know the Speed Sisters and their families,” says Fares. “Each one in her own way took me on a ride through Palestine that I will never forget.”

“They taught me to push boundaries, while still respecting your community. They taught me about resistance, about not giving up and what it means to stay true to your dreams despite endless obstacles.”

The Speed Sisters team

Brought together by a common desire to live life on their own terms, the Speed Sisters documentary features five prominent racers – Marah, Betty, Noor, Mona, and Maysoon – who have joined the ranks of dozens of male drivers in Palestine’s underground racing circuit. Despite their strength in united sisterhood, the racers are still fiercely competitive, squaring off against each other for the title, bragging rights for their hometowns, and to prove that women can go head-to-head with the guys.

Discovering the magic of Palestine

The new racing season opens with the then-19-year-old reigning champion, Marah determined to defend her title. Representing one of the most socially conservative and economically depressed cities in Palestine, Marah’s determination to make her hometown proud pushes her to be her best on the track.

The poster for Amber Fares’ documentary, Speed Sisters.

Betty, her biggest competitor, comes from a wealthy, influential family of racers. The two find themselves neck-in-neck when Betty’s luck turns and a questionable decision by the officials places her on top. Betty is swept up in a flurry of media attention while Marah must decide whether to quit in protest or follow her drive to win. Marah’s family is extremely supportive, and have sacrificed a lot to see her become a top racer.

The documentary follows the ups and downs of the racers’ relationships, both on and off the circuit. The friendships between Maysoon, the team manager; Mona, the pioneering free-spirit; and Noor, the thrill-seeker struggling to find her way, bring a tenderness and texture to life off the track as each of the women navigate love, religion and family pressures while trying to be true to themselves in the face of a military occupation.

“I wanted to make sure that the feelings of excitement, camaraderie, intimacy, and resistance were translated into the film,” Fares explains.

“The political situation in Palestine often seems hopeless, but through the eyes of the Speed Sisters, I discovered the magic of Palestine.”

“I wanted audiences to experience this too,” she adds. “On the surface, Speed Sisters is a film about two seasons in the lives of five women racecar drivers from Palestine. But more importantly, it is a film about the human drive to break through the obstacles in our lives and be true to ourselves and to our dreams.”

Marah: “What are we supposed to do, stop living? When this happens, the occupation wins.”

Reigning champion, 19-year-old Marah is from Jenin, one of the most socially conservative and economically depressed cities and in Palestine. She is driven to succeed by the desire to represent Palestine on the world stage. With the tireless support of her family, she has pushed boundaries and garnered the widespread support of her community. Riding high as the celebrated women’s champion, she finds herself challenged by the unpredictability of rules on the track – and the rules of her life beyond.

Betty:  “It’s like the pepper in your food. The race without the girls is no fun.”

Glamorous and fiercely determined, Betty quickly becomes the face of racing in Palestine. Caught in a flurry of media attention, she builds a name for herself while taking the Palestinian racing circuit by storm. Hailing from a wealthy family of racers, Betty is set on claiming her place in her family’s legacy as racing champions.

Maysoon: “It doesn’t matter what people say. What do you think?”

As team manager, Maysoon looks out for the girls on and off the track. She does her best to keep the team together, and advocates for them in the face of questionable decisions by the racing officials. Despite family pressures and many suitors, she is determined to marry only on her own terms.

Noor: “In the car, everything I need to feel is there. The car completes me.”

A natural athlete, Noor carries herself with style, but rarely finishes, let alone wins, a race. She just can’t seem to memorize the route. While often lost, she is a powerful force behind the wheel and is determined to find a way to channel her strength and skill.

Mona: “I don’t race for the trophies; I do it for the release.”

Mona broke ground as one of the first female racers in Palestine. The free spirit of the group, Mona races for fun, not to win. When not on the track, she’s often found hanging out in garages fixing her accident-prone car with the guys. Despite her carefree attitude, a wedding engagement could find her hanging up her racing helmet for good.

Check out the photo gallery below for some inspirational stills from the 2015 movie (now on Netflix).

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