Life in the West Bank can be harrowing during the best of times. In between settlements, sanctions, violence, and shortages, joy is neither quick nor easy to come by. Some are fast to point out that some of the West Bank’s newer developments are prosperous and thriving. While true, it is only part of the story. Though there have been leaps made in tourism sectors and recent trade, Palestine is still an occupied territory. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t hear new stories of violence that oftentimes ends in death. In addition, for residents who have lived through the intifadas, the scars from fighting run deep.
It is in this context, then, that we must view the amazing resilience and tenacity of Palestine’s Speed Sisters. An all female racing group that hails primarily from Ramallah. This team is made up of eight women ranging in age from their teens to their forties. They stroll onto the racetrack, clad in full body racing suits, presenting a new face of Palestinian womanhood to the world. A life that is not one of victim or aggressor but of empowerment, control, and fun. And living in the occupied territories, fun can often be a revolutionary concept in and of itself.
In 2005, during the fall of the last intifada, the Palestinian Motor Sport Federation was established. Improvised tracks, sometimes in the shadow of Israeli checkpoints, led to a new focus for the youths of the West Bank. Events at tracks proved immensely popular with the Palestinian people and even Israeli soldiers have been known to show interest in the races. The banning of motorsports in Israel, for health and safety reasons, has led to sightings of IDF soldiers watching the races from their checkpoint vantages.
As the Motor Sport Federation grew in popularity, a woman named Suna Aweidah took notice. She yearned to get out on the racetrack, but didn’t have any experience. After pulling some strings, she was able to attend a few women-only races in Egypt, where her skill and intensity was instantly noted. In 2006, with new confidence, she entered the Ramallah racetrack to find, to her surprise, she was not the only woman there.
United by their scarcity, these ladies, with Aweidah as their head, created Palestine’s first and only female racing team. They compete alongside the male racers with no special provisions or sensitivities. Not that they need it. In a number of early interviews with male racers in the West Bank there was a fair show of support for the women. Most men agreeing that these women were, in fact, very good but just needed a bit of training.
That assistance came, unexpectedly, from the British Consulate when they decided to sponsor the team. In 2010 they not only paid to fix up an old BMW for racing, but they also bought helmets and uniforms for the women. A bit later, female trainers from the UK were flown out to help teach some of the finer points of racing. The promotion paid off. In the following competitions some members, like Mona Ennab, were found placing just four seconds behind first place. The acceptance of the men turned from curiosity to competition as they realized these ladies were not to be underestimated.
Little was heard from the group after a slew of press mid-2010. But recently news broke that the Speed Sisters have a feature-length documentary about them currently in development. Most recently they were awarded the Puma Creative Catalyst fund to make a promotional trailer about the film. Directed by Geoffrey Smith, the documentary follows the women as they compete in various Palestinian cities throughout the year. For lack of proper racing facilities in Palestine, the settings are often improvised, even including a cleared out marked street in Jenin. Interweaving the personal stories and determination of these women with their love of the sport, the group shows just what it takes to change the status quo.
It is one thing to sit back in peaceful countries and spout banalities like, “We should all rise above it.” It is another thing entirely when a group of women in a highly turbulent and conservative country actually go ahead and do it. The Speed Sisters are changing the face of Palestine, not just for women, but for all who imagine a life with more happiness than brutality, more revelry than mourning. These aren’t activists, just women who followed their hearts. Watching as they screech around in figure eights and cruise hairpin turns you realize that their relentless dedication knows no end. And as a new generation of Palestinian girls grow up, it’s comforting to realize that beyond nurses, martyrs, and mothers, ladies who dream in torque and horsepower can find their home in the driver’s seat.