January 17, 2008

RUNNING RINGS AROUND MAHMOUD:

Racing against the Mullahs (Maik Grossekathöfer, 1/17/08, Der Spiegel)

Zohreh Vatankhah steps into the elevator on the fifth floor, takes it down to the ground floor, turns right and walks through a heavy steel door into the garage where her 2006 Toyota Corolla is parked. But this isn't your ordinary Toyota. It's a dented affair in pink, complete with a roll bar and bucket seats. She snaps on the seat belt, turns the ignition key and the engine roars to life, causing the hood to tremble like the membrane on a bass speaker. Not exactly the kind of car that would pass inspection for driving on the roads in most Western countries.

Then she puts the pedal to the metal and her pink car shoots out of the garage, tires screeching. The janitor sweeping the courtyard stares after her, his mouth agape. Vatankhah inserts Christina Aguilera's latest album into the cassette player and drums her fingers to the beat on the steering wheel. She drives toward the bazaar in downtown Tehran, crosses a bridge and passes graffiti instructing passersby to "Destroy Israel" and a poster of a burning American flag.

Five minutes later Vatankhah is stuck in a traffic jam -- nothing short of torture for a person who loves driving as much as she does. Speed is her profession. Vatankhah is a professional racecar driver. In Iran, of all places -- where the profession is not only dominated by men, but also practically owned by them. [...]

Vatankhah is the embodiment of sin for Iran's religious fundamentalists and radical mullahs, but for the country's urban youth she is a vision. She reflects the kind of country the children of Iran's upper and middle classes want to be living in: modern and self-confident, embracing life and cosmopolitan.

In Iran, a country where women and men sit in separate sections on buses, trains and subways, how has a woman like Vatankhah managed to pull off this feat -- competing against men in rallies? "Ask Laleh," she says.

Securing an appointment with Laleh Seddigh is no easy feat. She doesn't respond to e-mails, sometimes doesn't answer her phone for days and doesn't return calls.

Nevertheless, she does appear promptly, as agreed, at 11 a.m. at the Hotel Esteklal, which she has suggested as a place to meet. Seddigh, 30, is an icon of feminism and without a doubt the country's most controversial female athlete. When she walks into the lobby, conversations stop for a moment. She is surprisingly short. Her skin looks artificially stretched, her nose almost too perfectly straight and her cheekbones unusually high. Other than the hands, the face is the only part of the body that women are not required to keep covered, and having cosmetic surgery is a form of silent protest. She wears a leopard skin-patterned silk scarf draped loosely over the back of her head, a blue turtleneck sweater under a brown coat and a Rolex watch. She extends her hand in greeting, a taboo in a country where women are only permitted to shake hands with men who are members of their family. But Seddigh isn't interested in taboos. She has a strong handshake.

She is a pioneer in Iran, the first female athlete to have competed against a man in the 25 years since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established the theocracy. It was in 2004, during a long-distance race in Tehran. "I broke a taboo. I'm proud of it. Why should Iranian women be weak? I don't know," she says in fluent English. "Our Prophet Mohammed never claimed that women should be locked up at home and doomed to watch the children while the man enjoys himself outside. On the contrary: He wanted men to encourage their wives and daughters to develop their personalities to the fullest. To be a successful country, we need strong women."

A wrong sentence can mean prison or a whipping in Iran, and yet Seddigh is not afraid to speak her mind. She is clearly fond of pushing the envelope.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 17, 2008 2:13 PM
Comments

Any culture that cuts itself off from half of its population's abilities and energy from the get-go is doomed.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 17, 2008 3:01 PM

And she loves driving, as do all good hearted people.

Posted by: Bryan at January 17, 2008 7:03 PM

She should open a driving school for women, and invite Laura Bush (and Hillary). Heck, she might even run for President in 2013 (once the Supremo is good and dead).

Posted by: ratbert at January 18, 2008 12:00 AM

The astonishing superficiality missed the entire picture:
In a single article, spiegel (ALERT!) has won the first prize in xenophobia, misoginia?, lowest-common denominator intellect and brainwashing ability for the unthinking, untrained reader. How quaint!,

It makes Iran look bad: very fashionable.
It makes Islam look bad: " "
It makes Iranian police look bad: " "
It makes Iran´s society look corrupt: like the ´west´!
It makes Iranian women (from 2 rich examples) look like frivolous beings without social values.
AND DARES NAME IT EMANCIPATION!

THIS ABHORRENT DISGRACE THAT POISONS THE PUBLIC EYE SHOULD MAKE HEADS ROLL IN THIS RAG.

Posted by: M. L. COOMBS at January 19, 2008 6:05 AM

Not familiar with blaming the messenger, eh?

Posted by: oj at January 19, 2008 9:54 AM
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