Meet the Middle East’s First Female Car Racing Team

The Speed Sisters customize standard street cars and practice on makeshift courses around market squares and airstrips.
(Photo: Facebook)
Dec 15, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Remy Tumin is a New York journalist who has written for Brooklyn Magazine, the New York Nonprofit Press and the Vineyard Gazette.

Mona Ali learned to race cars before she was old enough to have a license. At just 16 years old, the Ramallah native would borrow her sister’s car and race through the deserted streets of the West Bank city.

“I was racing cars when I was a kid, learning how to do it, speeding with the boys from school,” Ali told The Guardian. “At first, the boys wouldn’t accept me; they didn’t want to race with me. But I told them I’d carry on racing whether they liked it or not.”

Ali was the first woman to join the new Palestinian racing federation, and others quickly followed. Together, they make up the world’s first all-female car racing team from occupied Palestine, known as the Speed Sisters. Ali, 29; Maysoon Jayyusi, 38; and Noor Daoud are from Jerusalem. Marah Zahalka, 23, is from Jenin. Betty Saadeh, 35, is from Bethlehem.

The group of five women is the subject of a new feature-length documentary by Amber Fares. Speed Sisters debuted in the United States this fall to rave reviews. Fares follows the women as they confront obstacle after obstacle in a fight to be taken seriously in a male-dominated sport while confronting the everyday realities of living under occupation.

“We are the first women’s racing team in the Arab world,” one driver says in the film. “How much will we let the occupation affect our lives? What are we supposed to do, stop living?”

Now the women are regulars on Palestine’s car-racing circuit. The Palestinian Motor Federation does not have any official racetracks, so it sets up makeshift courses around market squares and airstrips.

Jayyusi, who now lives in Jordan but still manages the team, said people are still getting used to the idea of women on the circuit.

“When we first started, people looked at us as though we’d just landed from space,” she said. “But when they saw us race they changed their minds. Now we have fans, people who encourage us and sponsor us.”

“You prove that you are strong enough, not scared—that you can compete with the men,” she added, “and then it just becomes acceptable.”

The Speed Sisters can’t afford the latest and fanciest racing vehicles, so they customize standard street cars to race against their male counterparts. Practice was regularly held on a stretch of land next to Israeli military compounds until Saadeh was hit by a tear-gas canister fired by a soldier.

“We used to train in Ramallah, in a small parking lot, right in front of the checkpoint,” Daoud told Refinery 29. “But after Betty got shot, we stopped going there.”

Funding for the team continues to be an issue. The Speed Sisters are always scraping together what they can to make repairs to their cars, and with heightened security threats, Daoud said sponsorship has waned.

“Since 2010, I’ve had sponsors in Palestine,” Daoud said. “But this year, it’s not going well because of what’s going on. They didn’t give me the amount I needed, so I can’t fix my car, which badly needs repair.”

But no matter the difficulties, these girls mean business.

“When I sit in my car, it doesn’t know whether I’m a guy or girl,” Daoud said. “Being at the track is like being at home.”