Meet a Real-Life Lara Croft: Behnaz Shafiei, Motocross Racer

RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps finds a rebel with a cause in Iran.

August 23, 2017 5:00 am

The bike hits the sand mound and flies through the air with the greatest of ease, but this is no daring young man.

When the helmet comes off, a rather striking beauty emerges and laughs at the jump she just cleared like it was a crack in the sidewalk.

She has red lips, perfect brows and dyed blonde hair. She could be a stunt double for a famous actress, except this isn’t Hollywood, it’s Iran.

Behnaz Shafiei
In this photo taken Friday, June 5, 2015, Iranian Behnaz Shafiei rides her motocross bike during her training session at a racetrack in the Alborz mountain range near the village of Baraghan, some 19 miles (30 kilometers) west of the capital Tehran, Iran. (Vahid Salemi/AP Photo)

Here is a very partial list of what women are banned from doing in Iran:

* Entering sports stadiums

* Watching men’s sports

* Camping with men

* Wearing leggings

* Laughing loudly in public

* Dancing

* Riding bikes on public roads

These rules seem laughable in the western world, yet in a strict Muslim country many are enforced by the morality police and considered “obscene acts.”

The thing with rules and laws is that you can either obey them or find a way around them. For 10 years, Behnaz Shafiei disguised herself as a boy and rode around the streets of her hometown on a motorbike improving her skills. She got good, really good.

As word spread of the feisty woman on two wheels, the press took note, and she shot to fame. Last year, Danish design house Georg Jensen selected Behnaz to be featured in their “You can never be too much you” campaign alongside other female role models who are shattering glass ceilings. The caption on a photo of Behnaz standing next to her bike in the desert reads “You can never be too provocative.”

The girl who was blazing trails with the help of shovels and friends that supported her plight is now blazing trails for the women of Iran.

This year, realizing that motocross gear fully covers a woman’s face, hair and body, a morally responsible requirement in Iran, the national sports ministry allowed Behnaz to host and compete in the country’s first ever female-only race. Guess who won.

Behnaz also spent a month in the U.S. training and meeting with the sponsors that could take her career to a professional level. A visit that almost didn’t happen when US Policy tightened against travelers from mostly Muslim countries.

Behnaz Shafiei
Iranian superbike and motocross rider Behnaz Shafiei rides during a training session at the Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s main sports complex, on December 14, 2015. (Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)
AFP/Getty Images

Another historical milestone was met this July when, after years of petitioning, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Automobile and Motorcycle Federation decided to allow women to publicly use the Azadi Race Track in Tehran.

That’s a long way from the dusty streets of a village where a 15-year-old girl first saw a woman riding a bike and was fascinated. She still can’t ride on public roads, but on the off road track Behnaz is every bit as good as the guys, and she knows it.

Behnaz Shafiei
Iranian female motorcyclist Behnaz Shafiei perform before an exclusive interview in Tehran, Iran on July 7, 2017. (Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Behnaz Shafiei has one big goal: To represent Iran in an international motocross championship.

For this girl, stop signs are just speed bumps and the limit is only as high as she can jump her bike into the sky.

This is the third profile in Kinga’s Real-Life Lara Croft series. For more, meet Clair Marie, BASE jumper, and Kimi Werner, freediver and spearfisher.

Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with the sharks as a writer, producer and on-camera host. In her rare bits of free time, Kinga explores her singular fascination with sharks followed by a love for the beach, surfing, motorcycles, cars, charity work, travel, food and action sports.


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