http://sport.guardian.co.uk/motorracing/osm/story/0,,2023389,00.html GUARDIAN UNLIMITED ( SPORT ) As a child she competed with the boys and stole dad's car. Now Laleh Seddigh beats men on the racetrack, defying convention to become a champion driver. Hollywood is chasing her - but not everyone in Tehran welcomes her success. Interview by Robert Tait Sunday March 4, 2007 The Observer U.K. One afternoon in September last year, Laleh Seddigh was preparing to race at Tehran's Azadi stadium when she was stopped by an official. Seddigh is one of the most celebrated sportswomen in the Islamic Republic of Iran and certainly its most successful and flamboyant racing driver. But that day she feared her short but dazzling career, which had delighted and inspired millions of her female compatriots, was coming to an abrupt end - because, it seemed, she had insulted male pride. 'One thing that was said to me was that men who had been racing in the sport for years were complaining about how they had never had the kind of attention that I was now getting,' she told me recently. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 'I had registered and my car, a 1600cc Peugeot 206, had been checked and passed by the technicians. I did everything correctly and very quietly. The announcer called my name and I started out to the track. But as I was about to enter, they closed the door on me. They said they didn't know why but the head of the federation had decided I wasn't allowed to participate.' Seddigh could have been forgiven for losing her composure. 'I was angry, but I stayed calm. I was careful not to burn my bridges.' The Islamic Republic's complex laws on women's modesty and dress prohibit most female sporting contests from being held either in public or in the presence of men. Women are usually prevented from going to men's football matches or wrestling, sports in which too much of the male body is deemed to be on show. In recent years, women have been permitted to set up football, rugby and polo leagues, but they must wear impractical outfits that loosely cover their entire bodies. Dress restrictions mean that women cannot compete in international competition in sports such as karate or athletics, which are both popular in the country. Iran's sole female entrant at the 2004 Olympics in Athens was Nassim Hassanpour who, for the 10-metre air pistol event, wore a hijab and long coat. In fact, her preferred sport is gymnastics, but the Islamic dress code prevented her from entering in that discipline. 'When an athletic-minded girl is choosing her sport in Iran she has to think about its international dress code,' Leili Khorsand, a female sports journalist for Etemad-e Melli, told me. 'That's very important. Basketball and volleyball are hugely popular among Iranian women, but the national teams have never competed outside the country because of the dress code.' There are no such restrictions for Laleh Seddigh in her sport of choice, motor racing, in which all competitors are covered from head to toe. Yet having navigated her way through the maze of religious strictures, she found her path blocked by male prejudice and petty officialdom. When asked to explain why they excluded her from last September's race, the Iranian Motorcycle and Automobile Racing Federation's powerful vice-chairman, Hossein Shahriari, did not cite any reference from the Koran. 'It seems it was no more than an expression of his personal taste,' says Seddigh. 'There was nothing official in his hand saying that Laleh Seddigh was not allowed to participate in that race.' Seddigh, hugely determined and supported by her wealthy industrialist father, is racing once more after persuading Shahriari to reconsider. She has a contract with the team of car-manufacturer Saipa, where Shahriari is a director. She has now been given a licence to compete abroad and plans, later this month, to take part in the Gazelle women's rally in Morocco, in a four-wheel drive Isuzu. After that, she aims to compete, as she did last year, in the Middle East Formula 3 series championships in Bahrain in May. She wants to complete her rehabilitation under the Iranian federation in next year's national championship in the 1800cc division, competing against men and driving a BMW 3-series car. Obstacles remain, however. Last month, she was excluded from another race at Azadi stadium after her all-male fellow competitors signed a letter complaining that her tyres gave her an unfair advantage. It is the evening rush hour in Tehran. Heavy snow has made driving even more hazardous than usual and the light is fading fast. Laleh Seddigh relishes the conditions as yet another challenge and test of her skills. Unsuited by temperament, training or experience to sitting in traffic jams, she revs her 3.5 litre Mercedes Benz and begins rapidly to zig-zag through the slow-moving cars on the Ayatollah Sadr highway. The effect is both terrifying and exhilarating. Her virtuoso driving provokes an irritated and competitive response from several male drivers, but they are soon left trailing in the champion's wake. It was on these chaotic and congested roads that Seddigh learned to drive - and to race. 'Driving on the streets of Tehran made me what I am today,' she says later as we sit drinking coffee in Café Classic, in the upmarket Fereshteh neighbourhood. It is our third meeting. Our two previous encounters were conducted through a translator, but now Seddigh's English is improving. In our first meeting, two years ago, she was guarded and answers had to be prised from her. Now, she is expansive and even candid. With her headscarf pushed back to reveal subtle blond highlights, she resembles many elegant young women in Tehran's prosperous northern suburbs. She is 30 years old, single, attractive and fashion-conscious. She is wearing knee-length brown leather boots and an expensive bottle-green winter coat bought on a visit to Paris. 'I was driving to university in the south of Tehran, where people drive like they are in a zoo, so I had to be aggressive,' she says. 'The highways here are more dangerous even than the race tracks. At least on the tracks you are dealing with professional drivers. On the highways, some of them are idiots.' Two years ago, Seddigh was crowned national champion in the 1600cc class following an eight-race season on the track and in rallies. In the final race, driving a Proton, she hurtled around the Azadi track to finish ahead of an otherwise all-male field. That triumphant season also included first place in the national rally contest when, with a female navigator, she drove across desert and frozen road, doing her own emergency engine repairs and wheel changes. Her success came as such a shock to Iran's male-dominated culture that the motor racing federation still refuses to acknowledge it. There are few elite female drivers in the world; to become one in an Islamic theocracy, where women have second-class status, is a remarkable achievement. As a result, the world is becoming very interested in Laleh Seddigh. She has a website and a myspace page. A Hollywood film about her life is in production and she has been profiled in Paris Match. Her fame persuaded US immigration authorities to grant her an entry visa, to test-drive in California, within a week, a courtesy rarely extended to Iranians by America, which has no diplomatic relations with Tehran. Seddigh declined an offer to compete in the US because it would have meant staying there for a year. 'I am fond of America,' she says. 'All the homes, cars and highways are huge and the people are so friendly. But I love Iran and the way of life here. The most important thing for me is my family.' Born in February 1977, the eldest of four children, Seddigh is from a wealthy family. Her Swiss-educated father, Morsal - owner of four factories producing gas appliances and car spare parts - provided the family with a comfortable life at a time when most Iranians were suffering from shortages brought on by the revolution and war with Iraq. As a girl, Seddigh had many hobbies, including playing the piano and painting watercolours. But what fascinated her most of all was speed and cars. 'She started driving my car around the yard when she was eight-years-old,' says Morsal Seddigh. 'She was always watching me with the car to see what I was doing. I remember she hit the wall a few times. Later, she began to take the car outside and, at the age of 11, she could drive in the street. She would steal the keys when I was asleep and take the car out. One night the police caught her and demanded to know why I was allowing her to take the car on to the road. I simply explained that I couldn't stop her.' Seddigh's parents also noticed her preference for playing with - and competing against - boys. With co-educational schools outlawed after the revolution, many Iranians had no contact with members of the opposite sex while growing up. Seddigh was an exception. 'We used to call her Laleh Agha [Mr Laleh],' says her father, who used to introduce her, jokingly, to friends and acquaintances as his son. 'It was something we couldn't understand. We hadn't created it or encouraged it. It seemed to be genetic.' Like many Iranian women, Seddigh is now in higher education, studying for a PhD in sports management. In that respect, she is part of a national trend in which more than 60 per cent of Iranian university students are women. Not all of this learning leads to fulfilment - or jobs. Iran suffers from high graduate unemployment. At the same time, with bars and nightclubs banned, many young women complain of too much free time. 'Women don't have enough entertainments and hobbies and that has pushed them towards sport,' says journalist Leili Khorsand. 'Before the revolution there were dance halls and people would go there to use up their energy. Now if a young woman is feeling depressed, where does she go? Women are turning to sport as a form of self-help. If you go to any swimming pool or aerobics hall in Tehran, they are full of women taking exercise to fill their monotonous lives.' Monotony is not a problem for Seddigh. Her family's wealth funds her motor-racing, as well as horse-riding and target shooting. Seddigh does not expect to earn much from racing - and she may not need to. Friends speak of a generosity tending towards extravagance. In Bahrain last year, she reportedly took several journalists to dinner and paid the bill of more than $1,000. But the media attention has bred a certain star-consciousness. She is evasive with journalists. Despite our previous acquaintance, we meet only after several false starts, unanswered telephone calls and cancellations. Yet in person, Seddigh is as charming as she has been stubborn in pursuing her career. She began, from the age of 18, to petition the Automobile Federation to admit women competitors. In 2002, still without a racing licence, Seddigh had an accident that almost ended her career before it had properly begun. Driving at speed in snowy conditions in north Tehran, she crashed and her left leg, trapped between the door and the driver's seat, was broken in four places from ankle to thigh. She needed eight hours of surgery and the insertion of a metal plate. The trauma might have dissuaded a lesser spirit from driving competitively. But no: 'The accident taught me never to bang on the brake on a slippery road,' she says, with an insouciant smile. Three years ago, following a period of relative liberalism under the then President, Mohammad Khatami, the federation finally granted her a licence to race. Khatami's reforms had allowed Iranians a degree of freedom unknown since the revolution. Smart cafes opened, while prohibitions against Western popular culture and music were lifted. For Seddigh, it demonstrated that, even in Iran, a woman could enter and compete in a man's world if she had patience and perseverance. Many of her male rivals concede that she is special. 'When she sits behind the wheel she sheds her feminine shell and turns into a man,' says Ali Kalhor, winner this year of the 1600cc national championship title that was Seddigh's two years ago. 'This sport is a male activity. In Iran many cannot accept a woman competing against men. But she has the talent and her passion for the sport helps her overcome most difficulties.' When, last autumn, the federation threatened to prevent her taking part in competitions, Seddigh and her father demanded a meeting with Hossein Shahriari, who had told journalists that Seddigh was not entitled to the champion status she claimed. 'I told Mr Shahriari that if he didn't allow Laleh to compete she would be forced to leave the country and I would follow,' says Morsal Seddigh. 'I explained that Iran would lose me as an industrialist and how would he like that on his conscience? He was playing with his daughter, who is about five or six. I said, "Mr Shahriari, you have a daughter and one day she may need help just as my daughter needs help now. It is not correct that you stop my daughter being active in this society."' When I spoke to Shahriari, he denied having tried to block Seddigh's progress. Her exclusion from last year's race was caused by 'internal difficulties' at the federation, he said. Far from blocking her progress, he credits himself with 'creating Laleh', pointing out that she and other women drivers had been barred from competing before he joined the federation. 'Until I and other members joined, there was no Laleh,' he says now. 'The new federation created her. We believed men and women should be supported equally so that anyone talented could compete. Under those guidelines, Laleh developed because she had the talent. I haven't changed my mind about her. The one who has created Laleh wouldn't destroy her.' At the same time, he makes little effort to hide his prejudices and dismisses her as no more than a 'woman's champion'. 'We have told her not to introduce herself as a champion because those who are the real champions start complaining,' he says, oddly. Seddigh dismisses these discourtesies. 'I have certificates all translated into English to prove that I was the champion,' she told me. The best way to fight sexism is through 'being smart'. 'If they think you want to achieve something on your own, they won't help you. But if you can show that there might be profit in it for them - for example, that they can get into the record books as the ones who allowed women into motor racing - you can appeal to their pride and self-importance.' Will other female Iranian athletes be inspired by her spirit and resolution? Leili Khorsand, the sports journalist, does not think so. 'Iranian sport is, in general, a long way short of international professional standards and, for women, the distance is even greater. Laleh is talented but the sport she has chosen is highly individualistic and it needs money, which many don't have. In other competitive sports you can't do it on your own: you need the full backing of the relevant federations. Women are not allowed to have male coaches and the female coaches have little experience of international competition. The sad truth is that the structure to nurture female sporting talent doesn't exist in Iran.'