Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Racer leaves social norms in the dust

EXCELLING An Iranian women's passion for racing has caused bitter grumbling among her male competitors and challenged traditional views on the role of women

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TEHRAN

Race car driver Laleh Seddigh, 28, in downtown Tehran on April 15 last month. Seddigh is a lively, energetic symbol of a whole generation of young Iranians who are increasingly testing social boundaries.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Laleh Seddigh stepped on the gas, cut off a truck and blasted her Peugeot between two other cars.

"I prefer to drive by myself," she said, seeing her passenger steadying himself with a hand on the dash. "In case something happens -- it's a very big responsibility."

With that, she broke around a blue pickup, accelerated past an Oldsmobile and swerved onto an off-ramp, past a billboard of Ayatollah Khomeini and a 30kph speed-limit sign, doing 80kph (or just under 50mph).

Seddigh loves speed. She also loves a challenge. Last fall, she petitioned the national auto racing federation in this male-dominated society for permission to compete against men. When it was granted, she became not only the first woman in Iran to race cars against the opposite sex, but also the first woman since the Islamic Revolution here to compete against men in any sport.

What's more, she beat them.

"I like competition in everything," the striking 28-year-old said after parking the car and going for tiramisu in a cafe in North Tehran. "I have to move whatever is movable in the world."

In March, she moved the nation when she won the national championship. State television refused to show the new champ on the victory stand elevated above the men, but photographers captured the moment. She stood quietly while receiving her medal, as she had promised the race organizers she would, with a scarf over her long black hair and a coat over her racing uniform.

Seddigh is a lively, energetic symbol of a whole generation of young Iranians who are increasingly testing social boundaries. Seventy percent of Iranians are under 35, and they have gently pushed for, and received, freedoms unimaginable even a few years ago. For women in Tehran, at least, head scarves are often brightly colored and worn loosely over the hair. The obligatory women's overcoats are now often tight and short.

She admires the Formula One star Michael Schumacher -- in fact, the petite Seddigh is often called "the little Schumacher" -- but her real hero is her father, a wealthy factory owner. "I've always wanted to be like him," she said. "Basically, he's my trainer in everything."

"I want to show my father that I can do anything," she said. "I've always wanted to follow him. He drove fast and careful, and I looked up to him and followed him. From the time I was 12 or 13, I wanted to have a competition with boys, and maybe that was the reason."

Seddigh is the oldest of four children. When she was 13, her father taught her to drive on weekends in a park on the outskirts of Tehran. At 23, she began racing miniature race cars that had more in common with go-carts. She also entered three-day cross-country car rallies, in which she had to change her own tires and make her own repairs. "I had to do everything by myself," she said, "because my navigator was a girl as well."

The opportunity to compete against the boys came last year, when a new president took over at the Iranian racing federation who was open to allowing a woman to enter the men's races. There has been a lot of jealous grumbling from many of the male drivers, Seddigh said, but others, like Saeed Arabian, Iran's previous national champion and now her driving coach, are proud of what she has achieved.

"She is brave in asking for her rights," Arabian said. "She will have a great future."

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