By Sara Hussein (Agence France Press)
RAMALLAH: With her bright orange pedicure, Michael Kors handbag and skinny jeans, Maysoon Jayyusi hardly looks like a Palestinian speed racer -- until she gets behind the wheel. The minute she starts up her SUV, she's off -- coursing ahead of the rest of the traffic, weaving among bewildered locals in the crowded streets of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
It's easy to see why the team she heads -- the Middle East's first female speed racing team -- has been dubbed the "Speed Sisters".
The group of six women, Muslims and Christians from their 20s to mid-30s, have battled sceptical parents, the realities of the Israeli occupation and a sometimes disapproving public to become local stars and even the subject of a documentary. "We feel we are free when we're doing this," teammate Mona Ennab, 26, said. "It's a way to escape everything around us."
Jayyusi, 36, said her love of speed was born out of frustrating hours stuck in long lines at Israeli checkpoints. "I feel such depression at the checkpoints, but this speed makes me feel like I'm powerful, it helps me expel my depression," she told AFP. "When the soldier finally lets you past, you feel like you want to fly."
Jayyusi had to take lessons behind her parents' backs after graduating with a business degree from Bir Zeit University, saving up her salary to pay for them. "They didn't think I needed my licence, and it was expensive," she said. But it paid off. In 2010, the skills displayed in her daily commute drew notice and she was approached by the head of the Palestinian Motor Sport and Motorcycle Federation, Khaled Qaddoura.
He offered Jayyusi the chance to participate in a training camp for drivers sponsored by the British Council, along with several other women, all with different levels of experience -- and the Speed Sisters were born. Ennab also started driving without her family's permission before she was old enough to even take lessons. "I used to steal my sister's car and drive it around without a licence," she laughed.
Behind the wheel, she shows no fear, throwing her car around an obstacle course of cones in the parking lot of a West Bank slaughterhouse -- the best place available for the team to practise -- with what might seem reckless abandon. Ennab grins cheekily as onlookers gasp at the sound of screeching tyres, watching the rear end of the car swing seemingly out-of-control in a semi-circle as she lets it "drift" around the cones.
For the women, getting behind the wheel is also a way to escape social demands.
"In our culture, there is a lot of pressure to listen to your parents, but when I get in the car, I can do what I want with it," Jayyusi said. "I feel total freedom." Both women at first kept their speedracing secret from their families. Jayyusi's parents found out thanks to a local newspaper report. "My mum was like 'Oh my God, you're going to die!," she recalled, adding that her mother is still too afraid to watch her drive -- though supports her fully. Ennab's family has also come around to their daughter's need for speed, and her mother is now a fixture at all her competitions across the West Bank.
Betty Saadeh, 31, another team member, faced no such challenge.
A glamorous blonde who drives a sleek Peugeot sportscar thanks to a sponsorship deal with a local branch of the French carmaker, she comes from a family of racers and said her only pressure is competition from relatives. "My dad is a champion racer in Mexico and my brother is too," she said. "It's in my blood -- there's definitely a family rivalry." Saadeh was born in Mexico then lived in the United States, but moved back to the West Bank with her family at the age of 13.
"I want to be here, it's my country. Why not show the world that Palestinian women can do anything?"
For Saadeh, racing isn't political but she says she's proud to represent the Palestinian territories. "When I compete with the Palestinian flag, it shows what we want, that we want a country, that we deserve a country." There is no escaping the fact that Israel's presence in the West Bank affects the team's ability to practise and drive.
Their one-time practice spot by the Ofer military prison has become unusable because of the debris -- stones, rubber bullets and tear gas canisters -- left behind from clashes between protesters and Israeli troops. And long-distance rally driving in a territory carved up into three administrative areas and dotted with military checkpoints is impossible, Jayyusi said.
Undaunted, the women have major ambitions, boosted by a recent trip to the famed Silverstone racetrack in Britain. "I want to compete internationally at Formula One," Saadeh said. "My dream is to race at Silverstone as a professional.