I’ve been writing recently on the history of women in racing and how with each decade as women made strides in open wheel racing it corresponded with strides made on the socio-political realm. A few months ago we featured Iranian racer Laleh Seddigh as our Woman of the Week. Laleh was, and still is, one of the female racers whose name deserves to be on the list with Janet Guthrie and Helle Nice and Sarah Fisher. Laleh took up racing in a country, which, without getting into a much deeper conversation, has not been so open to the rights and roles of women. Especially the rights and roles we in America take for granted.
Laleh started her love affair with racing even before she was old enough to get a drivers license. Her father was a karter in the Iran and daughter his daughter to drive by age 13. By age 18, Laleh passed her drivers test and was ready to take on the racing world. She suffered her first setback prior to receiving a racing license. In 2002 she was driving in snowy conditions and crashed, having to receive eight hours of surgery and the insertion of a metal plate in her leg. That did not stop her. The current political climate against women did not stop her. When she received her racing license, the Racing federation in Iran declared that women racing was un-Islamic. That did not stop her. Laleh went to an Ayatollah very prominent Ayatollah (religious leader) and received a religious Fatwa (edict) that stated there were not religious limitations in Islam that forbade women from participating in motorsports.
Short pause here to display my limited knowledge of Islamic culture norms surrounding women. It can be summed up with the phrase “highly conservative” (small c conservative). Women’s main role was not to be in the spotlight and women are to have themselves fully covered. This would hamper most sports. Baseball, soccer, basketball and even swimming involve some sort of strenuous physical activity where true competition requires a degree of movement that full body coverings make a bit more difficult. Yet, in racing the fire suits all ready cover the whole body. Therefore, Lelah could race and still maintain the religious requirements of Islam.
I was the first woman who, after the Islamic Revolution, participated in auto racing along with men. At first there were many different obstacles. I even had to get permission to participate in the race, under which I pledged not to violate religious and Islamic norms. This step was an important event at that time and attracted attention of many media outlets.
Once Lelah was allowed to race she went on ahead and just starting winning. She won her very first race, but Iranian television decided against showing the podium ceremony. In 20015 she won the national saloon car racing title and approximately fifty other wins and trophies. That same year she along with a female navigator participated in a national rally. Lelah was the one who had to do all the engine repairs and wheel changes of the car.
A lot of discussion right now on the status of racing and the involvement of women is on the idea of sponsors. When reading about Lelah the idea that sponsors support athletes who stand out. Lelah has done just that with her career. She is not only a novelty, but she also has the record to back it up. I think it also helps that behind the scenes she had a lot of other marketable traits. She has a Ph.D. in industrial production. After stepping back from racing she went on to become the Executive VP of a large vehicle parts manufacture and is now the head of the Education Committee of Women of the Iranian Automobile Sports Federation.
Certified amazing woman.