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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 February 2008, 11:49 GMT
Iran bans female 'Schumacher'
By Darius Bazargan
Producer, This World

Laleh Seddigh
Laleh has been accused of engine tampering by the Iranian authorities
Iranian women are exploring new boundaries and opportunities in education and careers - not least female racing car champion Laleh Seddigh - until that is she was banned from competitions following allegations of engine tampering.

Laleh's story is a symbol of what women can achieve in today's Iran.

But her desire to prove she could compete with men at every level ended up costing her dearly.

Role model

The 31-year-old sportswoman, nicknamed "Little Schumacher" is a minor celebrity in her native country.

She has also become a poster girl for Iranian women seeking to better their lot.

"I love to race, I love to compete... I think it's sort of a responsibility for me because I am inviting other female drivers to join to the race... and hopefully I can teach to the other females to just believe in themselves," she says. "Persian females are really strong."

Laleh Seddigh
Laleh had been given the title of Iran's best female racing driver

Laleh first learned to drive as a child, sometimes borrowing her father's car late at night for clandestine road trips - and later speeding through Tehran's notorious and lethal traffic on the way to university.

It was not long before she was clamouring for an actual competition.

She burst onto the racing scene three years ago, becoming champion of the 1600GT class.

By exploiting a loophole in the regulations, Laleh found that as long as she respected Islamic dress codes, she could race directly against male drivers - something that does not happen anywhere else in the world.

They don't really want a good competitor who is a female and they prefer to compete against other men
Laleh Seddigh
But while they were obliged to tolerate Laleh's presence, the racing establishment never fully accepted it.

The regime was so put out, Iranian TV was forbidden from showing her on the victory podium.

'Children of the Revolution'

For women in Iran, life is a complex and contradictory reality.

Many Iranian women are no longer prepared to accept what they see as being second class citizens - and raising the levels of women's education has also raised their expectations.

"More women are being educated in this country and getting to know how women are treated in other cultures," says university graduate and graphic designer Maryam Mohammadi.

"We call ourselves the 'Generation of the Revolution' or the 'Children of the Revolution' and we see the older generation, we see our parents and we don't want to go the same way they did: getting married at early ages, sitting at home just being housewives. We don't want to have the same future as, you know, they had. We want to change it."


The authorities argue that by imposing Islamic rules and values across Iranian society, they have actually emancipated more women than before.

They say that females from traditional and religious families - a vast majority in Iran - are now allowed to take a full part in public life, something their families would have forbidden in a more secular environment.

"After the revolution, women have become involved in science and knowledge, entering schools, universities, the workplace, the civil service and parliament," says Ayatollah Montejab Nia, a leading Islamic authority.

Today, two-thirds of university students are female, and many of these graduates can expect careers in law, medicine, engineering and management positions in commercial companies.

Challenging the status quo

The Islamic government wants women to be silent but women are not silent
Professor Fatemeh Sadeghi
Nevertheless, for all their ambition and qualifications, Iranian women are obliged by both tradition and law to seek a male relative's permission before working - or even travelling abroad.

"Women who are able and want to work here have no problems - providing their husbands allow them," says Farida Gholab, one of the first women in Iran to get a long distance bus driver's licence.

"But if my husband hadn't given me permission, I'd have been forced to stay at home - that's the family problem, isn't it?"

Pushing for change in women's rights can be met with resistance in Iran.

There are invisible "red lines" for public behaviour when it comes to challenging the status quo - and the full force of state power can land on those that cross them.

The past year has seen the continued harassment and imprisonment of women's activists who have been pushing for equal legal rights and an end to Islamic punishments for moral crimes, like the use of stoning for cases of adultery.

"It's a society that men govern in every field that you see," says political analyst Professor Fatemeh Sadeghi.

"The Islamic government wants women to be silent but women are not silent."

No shortcuts

Laleh Seddigh
Racing driver Laleh has been nicknamed "little Schumacher"
It is against this background that Laleh Seddigh has risen to something approaching cult status amongst Iranian women.

But the road to equality for women in Iran will be a long and hard one - and as Laleh Seddigh found to her cost, there are no shortcuts.

Her desire to compete in the fastest car racing category - the all male "Free Class" - led her into a complicated plot which involved repainting her fastest race car as a slower model.

Suspicious race officials paid a surprise visit to her garage and found evidence of her car-switching ploy. Laleh protested that she was the victim of a male-led plot inspired by jealousy.

"They don't really want a good competitor who is a female and they prefer to compete against other men. And that's the problem, that's the only problem. They think it's something against the traditional rules of Iran."

But her pleas for mitigation fell on deaf ears and the Iranian racing authorities have banned her from competitions for a year.

Laleh has vowed to fight to clear her name.

This World: Girl Racer will be broadcast on Tuesday 19 February 2008 at 1900 GMT on BBC Two.


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