Women’s racing team in Ramallah shows that there’s more to Palestine than the Occupation

An all women’s motor racing team is not the first subject that springs to mind when imagining a new documentary to come out of the occupied West Bank, yet six Palestinian female racers, in fact the Arab world’s first all female team, are set to feature in a production to be released next year.

In the racing world they are known as the Speed Sisters: attractive, confident and strong women in their twenties and thirties. Individually they go by the names ‘The Pioneer’ (Suna); ‘The Drifter’ (Noor); ‘The Rookie’ (Hadeel); ‘The Veteran’ (Mona); ‘The Prodigy’ (Marah); and Betty, who doesn’t have a nickname but is sponsored by Peugeot Palestine.

The story will unravel thanks to around three years of footage of the women, directed by Amber Fares, a Canadian–Lebanese filmmaker, as they take part in competitions against each other and other male drivers in the West Bank. The time trial autocross racing that they partake in looks to the untrained eye like a series of doughnuts and circling orange cones in highly skilled manoeuvres on a track.

Amber has been living in Ramallah, Palestine for the last four years and has developed a close relationship with the women. This connection has given her access to the more personal aspects of their lives and what will give the film Speed Sisters: Racing in Palestine its extra depth is a glimpse into their family life and how the women interact beyond the racetrack. One trailer depicts Marah Zahalka disagreeing with her father about what colour to paint her car. It could be a conversation between father and daughter anywhere in the world.

But they’re not in any part of the world, as shots of the partition wall and the familiar olive green uniforms of the Israeli army remind us. Even though the film does not intend to have a political agenda, there will be some reference to the ongoing struggle. Racing offers freedom in a part of the world that is sadly riddled with many restrictions; constant ID checks, roadblocks and interrogations. Marah tells us, “There’s an occupation in my land, but when I am in a race I feel like I’m resisting.”

It’s not just the occupation that the women are competing against; racing is a male-dominated sport after all. In the beginning of one clip we meet Maysoon, the manager, who tells us with a glint of pride in her eyes, “In a traditional Arab family, if a girl came and said she wanted to race they would say to her, ‘what on earth are you talking about?'” This does not appear to discourage the Speed Sisters.

The makers of the documentary hoped to raise $35,000 through their online Indiegogo campaign to cover shooting costs for the present racing season; the project has made over $46,000. Another sign of their popularity comes through Marah’s father when he explains that despite the fact that his family has stopped talking to him because he lets his daughter race with boys, he has seen an increasing number of women, girls and men turning up to watch the races.

In the end, what will be fascinating about the film is not just that the Speed Sisters defy stereotypes or an oppressive government through racing, but that we will see six women, their personal lives and their hobbies as they go about their lives in the occupied West Bank. Such a glimpse into everyday life is rare in a part of the world where coverage is dominated by fighting and oppression.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor