Behnaz Shafiei is in the USA, hoping to receive motocross training that will allow her to both compete and instruct at an international level. She is literally paving the way for women in Iran to feel empowered through sports. In 9 months, she has trained 117 women to ride. Her greater goals are to develop an all-female team and to receive government permission to FREELY ride motorbikes on public roads. Her recent feature on CNN can be found here, as well as her feature on BBC. Behnaz currently has a crowdfunding campaign that is raising funds to help achieve gender equality through motorcycle racing.
My name is Behnaz Shafiei and I am a motocross rider visiting the United States from Iran – where I was born, raised, and will return to develop the sport of motocross for Iranian women and girls.
The purpose of my visit is to secure support, through sponsorships or donations, to receive advanced motocross training to help me achieve my goals of competing internationally as well as to coaching females at an advanced level.
My efforts changed Iranian law to allow females to participate in motor racing and I am currently the only Iranian woman to hold a motorcycle racing permit. However, Iranian females are not allowed to train with male coaches or racers. That is why I am here in the United States trying to get my coaching certificate to pay it forward by training other females in Iran.
It is also illegal in my country for women to ride motorcycles on public streets or on race tracks; to enter stadiums to watch men’s volleyball and football matches; and to travel without the consent of our husbands or fathers.
Pursuing a male-dominated sport in a conservative society has brought me the most immense challenges and sweetest victories. You could say that the “roads” I’ve traveled have been bumpy, but I am determined to fight for female sports participation as a human right leading to gender equality. I was not born a women’s rights advocate. But I was born a woman. In Iran. And from an early age I learned that discrimination was a part of nearly every aspect of an Iranian woman’s life. As women we’re banned from attending sports matches in stadiums, and leaving the country requires permission from our father or husband.
At age 15, while on vacation with my family in Zanjan province, I spotted a woman using a motorcycle to run errands. Rural women were able to ride alone in the countryside, whereas that activity was strictly forbidden in the urban centers. She provided me with a brief lesson and I was immediately hooked.
I disguised myself as a boy and practiced under the dark of night – usually from between 9 PM to 3 AM to avoid revolutionary guards. On occasion, I was caught, and the reactions were mixed. Some men were impressed that a woman had the courage and skills to ride. But, others were opposed and would strongly condemn and criticize my actions. Once, the guards chased me and tried to run me off the road.
For more than three years, I fought to be accepted, acknowledged and legally allowed to ride my motorcycle and to compete in Iran. I showed up at the Ministry of Sports and the Iranian Motorcycle Federation every other day, ignoring their ridicule and laughter, to issue my requests. Time passed and I watched as the representatives retired and were replaced. Gradually, I developed more allies with the new, younger directors.
Last year, I secured the right for Iranian women to wear motorbiking outfits, obtained authorization to train other female motorcyclists, and received the legal backing to produce an all-female motocross race which was held in March 2017.
In nine months, I have trained 117 Iranian women and teens how to ride for free. While I’m in the United States, I also plan to consult with other women’s motorcycling clubs on best practices so that we can create a competitive team in Iran.
I am proud to be a pioneer and positive role model inspiring other women and girls. Female motocross racers have caught the interest of the public. I have 65,000 Instagram followers and have been recognized in international outlets such as the BBC, CNN, The Guardian and The New York Times. The positive sentiment is motivating me to keep pushing for sports access and infrastructure – the training facilities, coaches and sponsorship.
I received my visa to the United States shortly before the first Muslim ban was introduced in February. I took a chance, sold my motorcycle to help fund passage to the East coast, and accepted the hospitality of a lovely host family in Maryland. Slowly – too slowly – Iran is changing the way it regards women. But there is still a long way to go. It takes time and perseverance. Remember that American women fought for nearly 100 years before they were finally allowed to vote in 1920. And since then, America has only inched closer to gender equality in business, in politics, in the arts and in sports.
I would not have made it to the United States without the support of New York-based Tavak Partners. They introduced me to Shirzanan nonprofit organization for Muslim females in sport. As a Shirzanan Athlete Ambassador, their small but mighty volunteer staff is raising my voice, media visibility and skills to confront cultural and institutional barriers to sport.
Sports have brought me the greatest feelings of happiness, strength and freedom. I want all Iranian women and girls to experience those feelings, too. It won’t be easy to obtain gender equality in sports or in life. But, I’m prepared to fight full throttle for those who don’t have a platform like mine!