By day, Suna Aweidah assists Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. By night, she rules the streets as local queen of race-car driving.
“I love cars and speed!” the Ramallah resident tells Metro.
When Palestinians formed a car-racing association five years ago, the sport was seen as a male domain. But Aweidah had her mind set; she travelled in 1985 to Egypt to compete in a go-kart — though she’d never even seen one.
“It was hard to convince my parents to allow me to race,” she says. “Even single women like me need the approval of their families to do something like this."
Today Aweidah is known as the Palestinian Queen of Speed, challenging mostly male competitors in the West Bank’s increasingly popular car races. And Queen Aweidah has her princesses, too.
“Palestinian women are crazy about car-racing,” explains Razan Salameh, who covers motorsport for the Maan news agency. “Now there are eight female race-car drivers in the West Bank. The male drivers used to look down on them, but these women train hard and are getting very good scores.”
Aweidah is now so famous that women often approach her on the street, telling her that they’d like to race, too.
“But many are married and their husbands don’t like the idea,” she explains. “And others don’t have cars.”
While car-racing is a booming pastime for Palestinians hungry for distraction, racers of both genders face significant challenges. Because there are no official tracks, races take place on city streets or in truck terminals. There are no training facilities — and some drivers, such as Suna Aweidah, don’t even own cars. This stands in sharp contrast to Gulf states, where young, affluent men arrange illegal races with expensive cars.
Aweidah races whenever a car rental firm is able to lend her a car.
“The material standards are completely different from the U.K.,” notes British car-racing instructor Helen Elstrop, who has worked with the eight female Palestinian drivers. “They don’t have much of the equipment we have in the U.K. But these women are very committed and enthusiastic. They enjoy competing against men on a level playing field. Once you have a crash helmet on, nobody knows if you’re a man or a woman.”
But Aweidah and her seven princesses — including an 18-year-old college student and a 24-year-old former Miss Palestine contestant — have larger ambitions. In early June, they formed an official team, the Speed Sisters.
“We want to encourage more girls to race,” explains Aweidah, the team’s captain. “It’s easier for their families to accept if there’s a women’s team.”
The Speed Sisters have even recruited a coach and rounded up a $10,000 sponsorship deal. Now they just need cars.
Karen McLuskie, Political Consul at the British Consulate-General in Jerusalem, shares her thoughts on the burgeoning Palestinian car-racing trend:
Why has car-racing become such a popular sport in Palestine?
It’s booming all over the Middle East. Last year, Bahrain got the Middle East’s first Formula One race, and this year another one was added. The interest in motorsport trickles down to the amateur level. There are very few public events on the West Bank. Life is pretty quiet. This is a great opportunity for people to get out of their houses. Thousands of people watch the races.
What do the car races look like?
It’s five races a year, one in each major city, including Bethlehem and Ramallah. Usually the races are right in the middle of the city, with the streets closed to traffic. Most of the drivers are guys who love cars. They drive old cars they’ve worked on to make better, though sometimes they just make them louder.
Who are the spectators and the drivers?
Motorsports is a very macho sport. In the conservative towns like Jenin, 90 per cent of the spectators are men, but in Bethlehem and Ramallah it’s family entertainment. And in just one year, the number of female drivers has increased from two to eight. Now there’s even a woman who races wearing a headscarf.