It is February 3rd, 2017 and Behnaz Shafiei and 15 Iranian female motocross racers are shoveling snow off a dirt race track in Iran. The cold metal of the shovels hits the dirt below the six inches of powder and heaps piles of snow out of the way. White puffs of vapor form and disperse with each breath. They stand in a valley framed by the foothills of Iran's Alborz Mountains range near the city of Karaj, 12 miles West of Tehran. Sweating in the piercing wind, the women know they should conserve their energy. But today is too important. The clearing of this motocross track marks a first for women's sports in Iran, possibly changing its future.
Women are banned from riding motorcycles in Iran. In January, after a video was posted online, just one month prior to this race, two women were arrested in the city of Dezful for riding a motorcycle. The charge was for breaking norms and values during what was dubbed an "obscene" act. Behnaz Shafiei, an Iranian motocross enthusiast, says the hardest part of her training is getting her bike to the track without being stopped by authorities. "It is illegal in my country for women to ride motorcycles on public streets or on race tracks; to enter stadiums to watch men’s volleyball and football matches; and to travel without the consent of our husbands or fathers" Behnaz wrote.
Yet, on a snowy February day, a group of women, heralded by Behnaz Shafiei, met for the first ever female motocross race sanctioned by the Iranian Sports Ministry. For the last three years, Behnaz has been lobbying with the Sports Ministry to allow a group of women she has been quietly training, to hold an all-female race.
In Iran, Islamic law prohibits women from riding motorbikes publicly in the streets. Creating an all-female motocross race was even more challenging. Behnaz spent three years petitioning for it and the right for women to train for it. "I showed up at the Ministry of Sports and the Iranian Motorcycle Federation every other day, ignoring their ridicule and laughter, to issue my requests. Time passed and I watched as the representatives retired and were replaced. Gradually, I developed more allies with the new, younger directors," Behnaz says. Despite the ridicule, Behnaz argued that the law put women in danger because it forced them to secretly ride in remote and dangerous areas, jeopardizing the safety of the women. Behnaz and the few other women would practice on what she called “handmade” tracks, since they were banned from riding on any male populated tracks in the area, especially without a license. “I’d love to practice on good tracks where there are ambulances and standard equipment," she would say, "but we [females] are not allowed, so we have to practice in places that are made by ourselves.” The Ministry considered this; however, their chief concern lay more in the women's attire. The ministry appealed to Behnaz's arguments once they came to understand that the sport’s helmet and clothing obscured the gender of the rider. So long as their dress was not ostentatious, broadcasting their female gender while riding, it didn't seem to be threaten gender norms. The ministry agreed to allow women to race, on this one occassion, as long as they remained fully covered in a hijab and helmet. It was in 2016 that Behnaz and her group of lady riders received legal backing for a formal all-female race.
The night before the race, a blanket of snow fell on the city of Karaj. Riding would be dangerous and nealry impossible. To ride the track is a tremendous feat. To remove snow from every square inch, would be an entire other thing. And yet, the fifteen women on the Azadi Racetrack felt they had no option but to pick up a shovel. Behnaz recalls the gritty persistence of her companions that morning. "The women were so determined. They picked up shovels and cleared the tracks. They mopped up the leftover water. They placed the tires around the track - one by one and by hand - in the freezing cold. Every single one of them was determined that this race would take place." Men, though not allowed inside the area during this all-female event, stood closely by, ready to shut the event down at the first sign of indecency or further inclement weather. But once the track was shoveled, there was nothing that could be done. The women fixed their hijab, placed their helmet upon it and mounted their bikes. Proctored by a group of women judges, the race commenced. Chunks of gravel and bits of leftover powder spewed behind them as they gripped their bars, leaning forward, more forward-leaning in bodies and minds than they had ever been before. Behnaz, having been training for the last ten years, did win the race that day. She had more than one victory to celebrate.
Behnaz has had to pave her own inroads for her off road motocross career. Having grown up in the Alborz province, close to where the race was held, Behnaz did not see many women on bikes. At age 15, while on vacation with her family in the scenic and rural Zanjan province in the Northwest area of Iran, she saw a woman traveling to the grocery store by motorcycle. Here, it was less taboo for women to ride openly in the countryside, as they were unlikely to see many people in the process. The woman gave awe-struck Behnaz a quick ride and short lesson, after which, Behnaz was permanently transfixed. “The woman didn’t actually teach me how to drive, she just said ‘here’s the gear and that’s the clutch’ and then I was off! I rode a bit, and I fell down a lot, but eventually I could do it.” (https://iranwire.com/en/features/1477). When she returned home, Behnaz sought out her brother's friends bikes for practice, at first awkwardly, in the cover of darkness. "I disguised myself as a boy and practiced under the dark of night – usually from between 9 PM to 3 AM to avoid revolutionary guards. On occasion, I was caught, and the reactions were mixed. Some men were impressed that a woman had the courage and skills to ride. But, others were opposed and would strongly condemn and criticize my actions. Once, the guards chased me and tried to run me off the road," she wrote in a public letter. Behnaz worked as an Accountant, steadily saving money for her own bike, while she practiced on her brother's bike in secret from the outside world. Once her skills improved, she would ride hidden in male clothes and helmet, to join the men in practice. Careful to stay hidden, she trained in the company of the region's best motocross athletes.
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, Iranian female athletes have struggled to find a way to follow cultural norms and compete in sports. Take the 2011 Iranian female soccer team, for example. The soccer team was banned from olympic competition because their hijab, required by Iran, was considered a breach in dress code violation. Sports within the country can also be a challenge if the sports physical movements are inhibited by a hijab, as in the case of many sports. As a result, Iranian women most often participate in sports like rowing, archery or chess. However, when it comes to women and sports, Islamic Sports Scientists don't take issue with women and physical activity. The country, nor the country’s religion, explicitly ban women from sports. The considerations are more subtle, and more entrenched in modesty laws that relate to the obscene or the inappropriate. Rather, considerations for women in sports fall more along the question of modesty: Must women engage with men during the activity? Does it require them to remove their hijab? Does it promote expressions "unbecoming" of women, like garishness, superficiality or aggression? Complicating the matter is the admixture of many westernized sports that are seen as illicit due to their intrusion on traditional Islamic culture. However, concerns with women in sports is as much about men as it is about women. In traditional Islam, the protection of women is sacrosanct. Further, philosophically, to see women in competition, is an extension of women in a state of suffering they were meant to avoid. This is to say, that the matter of Muslim women in sports is complicated. It is difficult to parse out the influences of western globalization, traditional patriarchy and Islamic law.
For Behnaz, movement toward female inclusion in sports, in any regard, is a step forward. "I was not born a women’s rights advocate. But I was born a woman. In Iran. And from an early age I learned that discrimination was a part of nearly every aspect of an Iranian woman’s life. As women we’re banned from attending sports matches in stadiums, and leaving the country requires permission from our father or husband," she says. However, Behnaz reminds us that in some ways, it wasn't much different for women in the United States."Slowly – too slowly – Iran is changing the way it regards women. But there is still a long way to go. It takes time and perseverance. Remember that American women fought for nearly 100 years before they were finally allowed to vote in 1920. And since then, America has only inched closer to gender equality in business, in politics, in the arts and in sports."
For her, the slow tide of change and the criticism only fuel her motivation. "You know how, when you tell a child not to touch something that's hot, she just wants to touch it more to check? Same for me," she said. "Riding my motorbike seemed to me like a pretty normal thing for a woman to do. When I saw how people reacted with shock... it just spurred me on." It was this attitude that attracted the attention of Danish design company Georg Jensen, who featured a select handful of women, including Behnaz, in an advertising campaign that solemnized women who push boundaries of their industries. “Many of the older, male riders didn’t appreciate my success,” Shafiei said in an interview for the Georg Jensen campaign. “Despite my accomplishments, they told me to stop riding. Many Iranian men thought motocross was not for girls. I think they have the wrong attitude. I think that women can do anything.”
Behnaz has quit her job as an accountant to pursue motocross riding full time. Although it is her only form of income, Behnaz has since privately trained 117 women and teenagers how to ride for free. It is her current goal to obtain a professional license to teach professionally. In fact, she traveled to the United States in 2017 in hopes of establishing relationships and sponsors to help build her network. Her manager, Hooman Tavakolian, secured a visa for Behnaz before U.S President Trump's executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries.
In a conversation with Behnaz, we were able to learn more about her training & upbringing, her experience during her US travels, her relationship with fear and grit, and the experiences that have forever changed her on and off the track.
"You know how, when you tell a child not to touch something that's
hot, she just wants to touch it more to check? Same for me . . .
Riding my motorbike seemed to me like a pretty normal thing for
a woman to do. When I saw how people reacted with shock . . .
it just spurred me on."
What is the most challenging aspect of training motocross?
the hardest is to get my motorcycle to the race track, cause if i get caught on way, they will take my bike away. then i have to spend a week trying to get it out of impound. i also face lack of sponsors and also money to live. these are my biggest worries and challenges. Since returning to Iran, i was able to get permission to train females at the all male azadi race track. they gave us monday and weds, all female which is huge step.
Why do you think women are legally discouraged from sports in Iran and other countries?
In Iran the issue was the Islamic hijab, clothing and how females would ride and observe the Islamic Law. In my opinion, the region and the neighbor countries don't want the female to advance and get powerful. They have an issue with empowering women. Maybe they are worried we will take over. Ha.
What about your personality has helped you succeed as a rider?
I owe my success to the fact that I am stubborn and refuse to give up and i am a fighter. When people used to tell me you cant do this or that. I would prove them wrong.
Were you ever scared practicing motocross at night pretending not to be a girl?
I don't have much fear in me. if I was afraid I wouldn't be in this field and go head to head with my opponents. I don't even recognize the word Afraid or Scared.
What's one piece of advice you wish someone had given you at the age of 18?
My advice would be: Behnaz be strong, Behnaz appreciate your youth, Behnaz enjoy your youth.
Is there something you wish you had done differently in your life? If so, what is it?
I had a bad car accident when I was young and it caused a lot of head ache for me and my family. If I could go back, I would change that. That car accident took away 3 years of life. I was a careless teenager. I didn't think long term. It became my biggest lesson of my life. That lesson made me the Behnaz now here doing this interview! In my opinion every situation in life is a lesson. Don't take it as a negative or a set back but rather a lesson. Life teaches.
What did you say to the Sports Ministry when you were pleading for the allowance of women in motocross?
One reason that motorcycle riding was not legal was also because there weren't that many active female riders. so there wasn't too much attention or push for it. They didn't take it serious when we approached. They ignored us. But when we went to the media and they saw the news articles, they realized its serious. We told them that we ride in dangerous hidden places which is risky for females. We voiced our concerns and we were persistent and they realized we are serious.
What are the three most important qualities a woman needs to be good at motocross?
When you first want to coach someone, you look to see if they are talented, or athletic. For me I look and focus on their commitment. I test them out the first 2 practices to see if they are serious about this field and see if they come back. To see if the student accepts the hard practices and still eager to continue. I had a student who was so committed, maybe not talented, but committed and dedicated. Ninety-nine percent is commitment and dedication. It is key. This student of mine took 2nd place, to me in the race I hosted. Interest, commitment and dedication!
What do you do for fun or for work when you're not training?
For fun, at nights, late night when I am bored we go motorcycle riding and go grab a bite. We talk motorcycles. My life revolves around motorcycles.
Do you have a significant other and what was their first reaction when they learned you rode motocross? Are they also an athlete?
I am single. I live with my brother and mother. My brother always supports me, he is with me. He rides with me. My mom is proud of me. But she didn't support me at first. But when she saw my passion and my accomplishment, she gave in and became my biggest fan.
Who are the most influential women in your life?
Only and only my mother. She is my biggest supporter, she stuck with us. She is the champion of my life and our life. She didn't stop me from going after my dreams.
Did you really have to shovel snow off of the race track in March for the first allowed women's race?
Yes, it was in middle of winter, weather was good when we were training. day or two before the race we went to race, then saw the snow. we drove around with our cars to wipe the road, each participant helped., we got shovels and got the track ready,. this showed how dedicated the females are.
Has your trip to the US been a success in procuring support and training?
To be honest not so much.i am grateful to Hooman and Tavak Partners for being by my side and sponsoring. He set up a gofundme and we were able to collect some money. Through friends and family we raised money and it covered some of my expenses and training. We were hoping for big sponsors. I am planning to come back and train again and race and hope we get attention of more who believe in this cause.
What makes someone a good athlete?
Good athletes are dedicated, have pride from within. One who has dreams and makes those dreams into goals. One who has goals and dreams, and has drive, will ultimately reach them.
What advice do you give your students?
I give them life advice and what I learned from my mistakes. I tell them that in order to be successful, they should listen to me. Some don't listen, like me, I rather experience it myself. I give them advice not to get mixed up with the men in this field, stay away. Do your own thing....