Behnaz Shafiei had to go undercover as a man in order to practice riding her motorbike in the dead of night – now nothing will stop her on her quest to become world champion
26-year-old Behnaz Shafiei has been motocross riding for the past fifteen years in Iran. In a country where motorbike riding in public is illegal for women, Shafiei’s dedication to her sport can be considered a political and revolutionary act – a defiant stand against the societal restrictions placed on Iranian women. Shafiei is regularly mistaken for a man while motocross riding – a misconception that speaks volumes about preconceived notions of women’s capabilities in the world of sport.
While Shafiei has achieved groundbreaking success – she is one of six women in Iran granted permission to ride on off road circuits – there is more work to be done until women can be in possession of a license. We speak to her about where her passion stems from, the significance of her role model status, the challenges she has faced and her hopes for the future; both in terms of personal success, and in creating greater opportunities for her fellow sportswomen.
How did you first get into motocross riding?
Behnaz Shafiei: From a young age I have always been in love with motorbike riding, but it never crossed my mind that I could ride a motorbike as I had never witnessed a woman riding one until I was 15 years old. I was travelling in a village called Zanjan and I came across a woman, who due to insufficient public transport, got from A to B on a motorcycle. This was the first time that motorbike riding became a reality in my mind and on that same day, I started my journey. Now, I am a professional motorcyclist both on road and off road.
What obstacles have you had to overcome?
Behnaz Shafiei: There was no place for me to practice my sport. Motorbike riding was banned in the streets, so I had no choice but to practice in secret at nighttime. I never had a coach, and I was only aware of where the breaks, gearbox and pedal were. I practiced a great amount – to the point where I fell over many times – until I could develop my skill to the level that I am at now.
Because I had no understanding of the appropriate gear, I would just wear a tracksuit and a motorcycling helmet. This meant that I was subject to danger. Due to my own lack of financial means, whenever a friend of mine had a motorbike, I asked to borrow it in order to practice. Because it was illegal for women to engage in this activity, I was scared and I was taking part with all my heart.
What misconceptions do people have about Iran and what women are and aren’t allowed to do?
Behnaz Shafiei: In the past, traditional values suggested that a woman was expected to maintain a household and it was only men that could work outside of the house. Men understood themselves as stronger and superior to women, claiming that women were weaker and were not capable of engaging in manual labour or business. However, today in Iran, I have achieved something that many men could never achieve. In Iran, there is no man that can ride both on road and off road professionally, whereas I have achieved professional status in both.
"Motorbike riding was banned in the streets, so I had no choice but to practice in secret at nighttime"
Do you think that you’re paving the way for female motor cross riders and women more generally in Iran?
Behnaz Shafiei: Yes, I am here to pave the way for women who want to take part in this sport. I will challenge the present difficulties in order to make it easier for other women in the future. Hopefully they will also prosper as a result of my success.
You have a large Instagram following. Do you think that this is related to the visually powerful nature of an image of a female motocross rider?
Behnaz Shafiei: Yes, I believe that with all of the attributes assigned to the female gender, such as beauty and delicateness, an image of a strong and fearless female riding a motorbike has a significant effect on people’s preconceived notions of men as the strong and powerful ones.
There’s a great photo of you with the first female motorbike riders in Iran. Could you tell me a bit about them and their significance within the sport?
Behnaz Shafiei: There is a certain group of women in Iran who ride motorbikes and claim that they are the first women ever to do so. I put this picture up on Instagram in order to clear up false claims and highlight who really were the first women to have paved the way for us.
Do you envision yourself and other women competing in a big arena in Iran’s future any time soon?
Behnaz Shafiei: Because this sport is an expensive one, not everyone can participate in it. However, if it becomes legal for women in Iran to motocross race in Iran, and the difficulties concerning sponsorship are overcome, then we can hope for the best.
What has your experience been of disguising yourself as a male motorcyclist, and what were people’s reactions like when they realised that you are a woman?
Behnaz Shafiei: It was never my intention or desire to gain attention from people marvelling at me while I was motorbike riding. It was more the case that I had to wear motorcycling gear that covered me up in order to perfect my skill.
How do you react to male criticism of what you do?
Behnaz Shafiei: I do not pay it any attention. I do my own thing. The criticism has no effect on me, and if anything, it drives me to practice and aim to be the best even more so.
Would you like to compete at international level?
Behnaz Shafiei: My childhood dream has always been to be world champion in motorbike riding. However, because this sport is lacking sponsorship, coaches, and facilities for practice, it means that I have to work that much harder in order to achieve my dream.