Monday 21 September 2015

Meet the female motocross rider who wants to represent Iran

Tehran, Iran (CNN)On a dirt track in the mountains above Tehran, the rider on the yellow 250cc Suzuki dirt bike speeds through the sand and dust, launching off of small hills and racing on.

This daring rider can hang with the best on this course. But there is often an awkward moment of silence when the helmet comes off and bystanders realize they've been watching a woman.

Behnaz Shafiei is one of the few women in Iran riding motocross at a high level. The lively 26-year-old says she has loved motorcycles since she was a child but only took up her passion as a teenager.

"When I was 15 I saw a lady going around doing whatever she wanted on a motorcycle, and that is when I realized I wanted to ride one as well," she told us, right after finishing several practice laps on the course.

Getting involved in motorcycle racing was an uphill battle from the start in Iran, a country where women can't even get a license to ride motorcycles on the streets. Behnaz remembers how stunned some men were when she showed up at the dirt bike track looking to compete.

"There are some groups of men, when they see us they say, 'You should stay at home and cook -- this sport is not for you.' It makes so mad, so I want to prove them wrong," she says, although she is quick to add that the men she trains with on the track outside Tehran have been nothing but supportive.

Her brother often helps her out, and her coach is Iranian motocross champion and freestyle motorcycle rider Rasoul Najafi. They often take to the track together, Najafi leading the way as he shows Behnaz how to perfect her mastery of the bike.

In the beginning, Najafi says it was a little strange for him to see a woman trying to take up the sport in Iran. Now he believes she can go far.

"She is very talented and can reach very high. But she needs better facilities and more sponsorship to advance further," Najafi says.

Najafi has touched on another problem Behnaz faces: She can't compete in races in Iran, and despite being invited to events in Europe and the U.S., she often lacks the funds to make the trips because she doesn't have enough sponsors.

The role of women in sports is currently a big issue in Iran. The country was recently embroiled in a major debate over whether women should even be allowed to attend sports events like football games or the ever-popular volleyball matches.

Conservatives have attempted to uphold a ban on women in stadiums, but many moderates are fighting to get the rules changed.

The case of Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the Iranian women's soccer team, has also prompted an international outcry in recent days. Ardalan will not be leading her team into the Asian Women's Futsal Championships in Malaysia this week because her husband would not allow her to renew her passport. By law, women must obtain their husband's permission to leave the country.

"I believe 100% you should not make a difference between women and men," Shafiei says as she leans on her motorbike. "In many sports, women have proven that they are just as good."

Shafiei is fighting hard to achieve her dream of going pro, but she says she also just wants to have fun.

Until then she'll be riding fast, flying high, and hoping one day she can represent Iran in the sport she loves so much.




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