real life bad girls: palestine’s female race team

Five car-racing girls in the West Bank are the subjects of a new documentary film, 'Speed Sisters.'

by Colin Crummy; photos by Tanya Habjouqa
17 June 2015, 1:43pm

If M.I.A's Bad Girls video and Fast and Furious 7's trip to Abu Dhabi are the extent of your exposure to car racing in the Middle East, belt up for the real deal. Speed Sisters is a high-octane story of car racing in the West Bank and the first women's rally team in the Arab world is at the wheel. 

Marah, Betty, Noor, Maysoon and Mona are five young women challenging gender stereotypes by rallying around improvised tracks across the West Bank. They're a sisterhood in a sense: challenging social expectation and community politics. But any camaraderie goes out the window when they compete against each other in Palestinian Motorcyle and Motorsports Federation events.

Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares captures the rivalry and girl power in her first feature length film Speed Sisters, which is also a fresh take on life lived under Israeli occupation.

The film, which had its European premiere at Sheffield's Doc/Fest, has gained support from Madonna and the women themselves have reached across borders to show solidarity with Saudi Arabian women's right to drive campaign (which, incidentally, was also highlighted through M.I.A's Bad Girls). Below, director Fares tells i-D how she steered Speed Sisters.

What was your first experience of the car racing in Palestine like?
I went to Bethlehem and 1000 people were there, music blaring and people lining up trying to get pictures of these cars. It was just this amazing, crazy scene. In the middle of that were these two girls who were getting ready to race. It really blew my mind.

Why did you think there was a story to tell there?
When you think of Palestine, the last thing you think about is car racing due to the obstructions, the lack of movement, the occupation. So the idea of racing cars is crazy.

Freedom of movement is a major theme in the film. The women are obstructed in their everyday lives by checkpoints and the West Bank doesn't have car-racing tracks. How did you see this theme working in the film?
The girls have a lack of freedom of movement; their lives are being dictated by a foreign power and by a military occupation. There are little things that affect them, but I think sometimes they don't understand because they're so used to it. They want to go to Ramallah, but there's checkpoints. You and I would be so much more offended, but they are just so much more used to that. Because of this, the freedom of driving is so huge. They are restricted so much that when they get behind the wheel of the car, it's like that feeling you get when you are 16 and get your driver's license amplified by 100. It's the one place they feel in control; that juxtaposition is really important.

Was it a surprise that the women were so culturally accepted in the racing community and within their own families?
Some of the women did experience resistance but they proved that they were good, were there to stay, and loved racing. Everyone came around to that. The head of the racing federation was instrumental in that. When he created the federation, he created a space for women to race and had a car there for any woman to use. There was always a space for a woman in the final.

What has been the reaction to the film in Palestine?
We showed the film in Ramallah for the first time last week. It was the first time Marah's dad [her biggest fan and mentor] had seen it and the community loved it. They loved it and they were surprised because when you hear of a film coming from Palestine, there's usually a certain narrative. The occupation leads first and the rest of the story comes afterwards. This flipped this around and that's refreshing for anyone in Palestine as much as it's refreshing for anyone else. They're tired of seeing themselves portrayed a certain way.

Was it deliberate to have an all female crew on the film?
Definitely. I wanted the women to feel safe, creating an environment where they felt safe to talk. It just created a safe haven where they felt they could say things without being judged. It's a film about women so it was really important to have this nurturing, supportive environment around them. We had one guy on the film, a producer - our speed brother.

Did you get in the car with them?
I did, a few too many times. Just being with them in the car when they're driving on the highway was frightening enough for me.


Text Colin Crummy
Photography Tanya Habjouqa

Speed Sisters
Sheffield Doc Fest
Amber Fares
Colin Crummy
female car racing