The first female rally driver in Egyptian history has spent her life proving her critics wrong. “I was always told that I cannot be a rally driver, as it is a sport only for men,” Yara Shalaby told Al-Monitor. “But I believe that sports are not restricted to a specific gender — it is for everyone.”
Shalaby fell in love with rally driving during camping and safari trips with her brothers when she was a child. However, people laughed at her when they found out her dream, saying that women could never be skilled enough to succeed in the sport.
“Many people used to mock my desire to be a rally driver,” she said. “They said that women cannot drive in general — let alone race. However, I liked the challenge and I was determined to change people’s minds.”
Beating the men who mocked her on the racetrack
Shalaby chose to defy her critics not through words, but through her results on the race track. The 36-year-old, who has one son and works as an IT specialist at a bank, has won a host of prizes in rally racing, where she was often one of the few women going head to head with men.
In 2014, she won first place in the national category in Egypt's Pharaons International Cross Country Rally and has won top prizes at the El Gouna Rally Cup, Al Remal Desert Challenge Rally and Al Farouky Desert Challenge.
Not only has Shalaby achieved success in a male dominated field, she has done so without the training structure and funding that allow male drivers to train and improve. Now she wants to create a female-only racing school to provide women with the support that she never received.
Supporting other women who dream to race
“I want other women to get into racing and prove the social stereotypes wrong,” she told Al-Monitor. “Right now I am teaching women rally driving, but this is only on a small scale. I take women in my car and we go to the desert to train. However, I hope that soon I can find a suitable sponsor who will provide funding for a school.”
Shalaby has always been inspired to bring other women into the sport and set up Egypt’s first all-female Gazelle Rally Team in 2016, training all members herself.
“I am forever grateful to her for her generosity with her time, her experience and her vehicles,” said Heba El-Sherif, one of Shalaby’s trainees. “It will be very good and inspirational to teach women this male-dominated sport.”
New trend of women athletes smashing stereotypes in the Middle East
Shalaby is part of a new wave of women who are defying stereotypes in the Middle East and fighting to the top of male dominated sports. Five women founded the first Palestinian all-female racing team in 2009 called Speed Sisters. The women modify ordinary cars in order to compete against established male teams.
“There is a common stereotype in the Arab world that women are bad drivers, so women do not feel encouraged to get involved in car racing and rally driving,” Shalaby said. “But women can excel at any sport if they are passionate about it.”