Iranian road and motocross racer Behnaz Shafiei has a hard time taking “no” for an answer, even when “yes” means breaking the law.
In Iran, Islamic Law prohibits women from riding motorbikes publicly in the street. The government considers it an “obscene act,” something immodest for women to do in a culture that also doesn’t allow them to enter sports stadiums or watch men’s sports. And while professional motocross is one of the most popular sports in Iran, it’s considered only a man’s sport, with no space for women.
“It’s OK for men to pop wheelies on the street,” Shafiei told Excelle Sports through a translator. “It’s not appropriate for women.”
And yet Shafiei, 27, has found a way to ride fearlessly the streets of her hometown in the Alborz Province: For ten years she disguised herself as a boy and became so good that nobody could deny her a spot on the racetrack.
Today, Shafiei is not just a maverick motocross rider, but an inspiration to others. In just the last two years, Shafiei has taught over 100 women to mask themselves with helmets and drive the dusty mountain backroads of Iran’s desert terrain.
In February, after three years of petitioning, Shafiei finally convinced Iran’s national sports ministry to allow her to host and compete in the country’s first female-only race—which she won, by the way.
The ministry made the decision after it realized that the sport’s necessary headgear and clothing obscured the gender of the rider, allowing women to race as long as they remained fully covered in a hijab and helmet.
While it’s not technically illegal for women to ride motorbikes in Iran, they can still be punished or harassed for doing what the government considers to be “indecent behavior.” For example, in February—the same month of Shafiei’s trailblazing race—two women were arrested after being filmed on a motorbike in the city of Dezful.
Shafiei says she also been stopped by the police for riding, but has never been arrested.
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“The police did pull me over a couple of times,” she said. “But when they realized I was a female, they were just shocked and let me go.”
Perhaps one reason they did is because Shafiei exudes an awe-ispiring confidence that demands her right to ride. On her first trip to New York City in April, she traded her hijab for a trucker hat and laughed at the thought of being afraid of cops. That confidence and sense of freedom developed when she was a teenager.
Shafiei was 15 years old when she saw a woman riding a motorbike for the first time. Her family was on vacation in a small village in the northern province of Zanjan, where police patrols are less regular than in major cities. The woman was running errands on her small motorcycle, and Shafiei was intrigued, asking the woman how the bike worked and what it was like to ride. The woman then offered Shafiei a spin—and she was instantly hooked.
هر کاری کردیم و هر شکلی شدیم، پشت سرمون حرف زدن… خودمونی شدیم… گفتن جلفه سر سنگین شدیم… گفتن مغروره تا خندیدیم… گفتن سبکه تا اخم کردیم… گفتن خودشو میگیره ساده شدیم … گفتن احمقه تحویل نگرفتیم… گفتن خودشیفته س خاکی شدیم… گفتن داره آمار میده وقتی حرف زدن و جوابشونو دادیم… گفتن دیدی حق با ماست لجش گرفته وقتی حرف زدن جوابشونو ندادیم… گفتن دیدی حق با ماست لال شده هرجور شدیم این جماعت بیکار یه چیزی گفتن… این مردم هیچ وقت احترام گذاشتن به عقاید دیگران را یاد نمیگیرن. پس فقط برای خودت زندگی کن
“I loved riding because of the thrill,” she said.
After her family returned home, Shafiei began frequenting local motocross tracks. Since she didn’t have her own bike, she asked the guys in the neighborhood to borrow theirs. Surprisingly, they didn’t hesitate so long as she knew how to ride. Sometimes her brother would also let her practice on his bike.
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Two years ago, Shefiei began taking her riding more seriously. She found a male pro motocross rider to train her, dressing like a man and riding at night to avoid unwanted attention while she continued to attend school during the day to become an accountant. It helped, too, that her mother supported her hobby.
But soon word got out that there was a highly skilled female racer around town and Shaifiei started getting more and more attention. She may not officially be a professional racer, but her the media started to treat her like a star. Non-government affiliated TV networks began covering her story and she even shot a commercial for the world-renowned lifestyle brand Georg Jensen.
Today, Shafiei has become a worldwide icon for female empowerment while helping to establish new awareness and level of appreciation for female riders in Iran and around the world. She also helped many Iranian women learn to ride too and has decided to forgo a career in accounting to pursue her passion for racing and coaching.
To be a professional rider and compete internationally, though, Shafiei first needs a license to compete, the money to travel to competitions and the proper certificates to coach. That’s why in April she came to the U.S. to meet with potential sponsors and help secure the resources and certificates she needs to live her dream. She even set up a gofundme page to raise the $25,000 needed for her training.
“I need to get those documents so that I can have a lot of competitions here in the States,” she said. “There’s nothing in [Iran]. I want to experience different racetracks, learn more about the whole concept of motocross and road racing, get the proper certificate so I can go back and coach.”
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This Saturday, Shafiei will attend her first U.S. competition at the Supercross world championships in Las Vegas, Nev. and meet American pro racer Shelina Moreda. The two met on Instagram through their love of motorsports, and if Shafiei keeps fighting, she hopes to invite Moreda to Iran to help coach her motocross community back home.
“I want to have females from Iran competing against females from America,” said Shafiei. “I want to create a dialogue between the two countries.”
And maybe one day, a more open dialogue will exist about female racers in Iran and women will be seen at the track the same way men are. Because, right now, Shafiei doesn’t see much difference between pro male and female riders other than the obvious.
“A woman’s physique is different than a man’s so it’s hard to compare,” she said. “But I’m 1,000 times better.”