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Verve People
June 01, 2016

What Keeps Laleh Seddigh Going?

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The foremost female Iranian driver talks about her challenges and her passion

Her feats on the racing track have earned her the soubriquet ‘Little Schumacher’ and Iran’s Laleh Seddigh is the only female racer who has been given permission by the authorities to participate in the men’s races. In India, in November last year, Seddigh told a packed audience at the Women in the World Summit in the capital, “Don’t be a pure feminist. Pure feminists are selfish. Learn to be clever instead — if you act like a lady, and learn to manage men, you will get what you need and be able to sit back while men do all the work.”

The Tehran-born sports personality learnt to drive when she was in her early teens and by 18 had passed her driving test and was ready to plunge into the exciting world driven by speed. On her decision to do so, Seddigh, who is now in her 30s, says, “I didn’t think that racing is unusual. I just found it very interesting. When I was a teenager, my father would teach me how to drive when I had free time from school. We would go around the village. So, even before I got a license, I was a skilled driver. My father, my brothers and my sister supported my dream and though my mother worried about the dangers of the sport, she did not stop me. She prayed to god to keep me safe.”

But Iran’s racing circuit was not ready to have a female player, for around the time Seddigh applied to drive, the racing federation decreed female drivers un-Islamic and she faced her first major roadblock. But she did not lose hope and approached a local ayatollah who gave her the necessary permission, provided she would always be appropriately dressed.

Seddigh remembers her first outing at the races. “It was a serious challenge. I was a little scared but I told myself that I have to move this toy perfectly. I have to understand it very well and use it as my winning tool.” And coming out tops in her first race spurred her on to keep on going.

A pioneer in her field in her country, Seddigh is aware that her entry into a male-dominated domain did ruffle a few feathers. For she admits, “A small percentage of people were not happy because they were my competitors. They were male and were unhappy to see a female driver who could win. I tried to be friends with all of them. It took a couple of years to break the ice completely.”

Being the only girl on the circuit — and petite to boot — must have brought with it its challenges. Seddigh emphasises, “I didn’t feel that I was alone; I was thinking about the other girls who were happy for me to win. I felt a big responsibility towards them. And to be a good driver you don’t need a big body, with a big physique. You need to just be clever, take the best decisions in the shortest time, sometimes in seconds. I am always alert about my actions — just like a hunter who needs to focus to get his aim correct.” Her inner strength has helped her get back on her feet after her accidents. “My family and friends help me prepare my body, soul and brain to get back to racing. Some crashes affected me badly and I had to rest for a couple of months, but I always got back.”

She underplays her glamorous appearance saying, “It helps a lot if you can present yourself in a good way. It has a very positive effect on other people.”

The iconic racer is now training other female drivers to follow in her footsteps. For although racing is an expensive sport and all families are not as supportive as hers, she admits “the situation is better today for them. They do not have to face the limitations I did at the beginning, because I have travelled down that road. They are just following me and all they have to do is practise and give their best”.

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