Thu, Oct 05, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Iran's female racing champion barred from defending title

THE GUARDIAN , TEHRAN

She was the speed queen of the racetrack who became a feminist icon after triumphing over an all-male field to become Iran's national car rally champion. But now the high-octane driving career of Laleh Seddigh has juddered to a halt, with a ban from participating at a race by the country's motor racing authorities.

Seddigh, 29, was walking towards her 1600cc Peugeot 206 at Tehran's Azadi stadium when stewards blocked her way, citing "security problems."

The snub followed days of wrangling with Iran's racing federation over her right to take part in an event she won two years ago on her way to becoming national champion. In the lead-up to the race, she was told her participation was not guaranteed but was advised to register her name. Her registration was passed after technicians gave her car the all-clear.

"I thought I had been given the go-ahead," she said. "I was walking towards the grid thinking, thank God this has been resolved, when they shut the door on me. They said they didn't know why, but the head of the federation said I wasn't allowed to participate."

`Little Schumacher'

It was the first time Seddigh, whose exploits earned her the soubriquet "the little Schu-macher," had been excluded from a contest. Senior federation officials said they had been unable to obtain permission for her participation.

However, Seddigh believes she was banned to prevent her earning enough points to repeat her championship success, which won her international fame but upset Iran's male-dominated religious ruling establishment.

"Most of the federation members were not happy to have a female champion and would have preferred a man," she said. "Since I won, they have even eliminated the winner's podium. They were afraid that I would win again and they would be obliged to show me on the podium."

Fatwa

Seddigh says a Muslim cleric has already issued a fatwa -- a legally binding religious ruling -- stating that there is no religious bar to women racing against men provided Islamic dress code is observed. She plans to use the fatwa if she fails to persuade federation officials to grant her permission to take part in future races.

The federation's vice-president, Hossein Shahryari, said Seddigh had been barred because of a government circular restricting women to female-only events. That decree has now been lifted, he said.

But he added: "Women are speaking highly of themselves and that causes men who sacrifice their lives in this sport disappointment. Women are not champions in this sport, they are only participants. If they observed Islamic regulations more they would not have such problems."

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