'Little Schumacher' blazes a trail for equality in Iran

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A startlingly beautiful racing driver has become a feminist hero in Iran, after roundly beating 12 male rivals in her last race and claiming first place on a competition podium.

A startlingly beautiful racing driver has become a feminist hero in Iran, after roundly beating 12 male rivals in her last race and claiming first place on a competition podium.

Laleh Sadiq, a PhD student in Tehran, has been racing for three years but is only now celebrating a triumph against an all-male field, which she trounced in a Mazda saloon car.

Nicknamed the "little Schumacher", she is seen by admirers as representing the new type of independent young woman that is emerging from the shadows of Iran's strict society.

At the beginning of the year, Sadiq was featured on the cover of Zanan, a once conservative women's magazine which has changed with the altered social position of women in Iran. She is also winning over some men, who see her as a force for change, as well as a symbol of hope for a new generation of Iranian female drivers who are used to facing prejudice on the roads.

Sadiq, 28, made her name at the Azadi stadium in western Tehran, and though her talent has earned her the approval of hardcore fans, many female, there were early mishaps. She began driving at the age of 13, once accidentally pressing the accelerator instead of the brake and causing a pile-up in her father's car. After other accidents she has had platinum implanted in her leg and, in a particularly bad incident, broke her neck.

She also has to deal with rough-house tactics from male competitors. "They would bang their cars into me so that mine would veer off and they would take me over," said Sadiq. "Their acts were completely unethical."

Sexual discrimination is rife among race sponsors: "In a race sponsored by SaipaCo, they gave a vehicle to the male winners and the female racer received only a gold coin. Because we are a minority, they can impose their discriminatory view."

Nevertheless, the image of a triumphant Sadiq, flanked by male runners-up, is certain to inspire.

"What's really interesting is that this is a phenomenon of the younger generation," says Suren Sinaiee, who drives a Jeep in Tehran. "As women become more independent, more women are driving as well."

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