Emirati teenage sisters Amna and Hamda Al Qubaisi are causing a stir in the male-dominated world of motorsports. With their sights set on Formula 1.
Being the only girl on the starting grid does not faze racing driver Amna Al Qubaisi. “At first, the males think I’m not as capable or as aggressive a driver as them,” says the 17 year old from Abu Dhabi. “But as I race and I beat them, they start giving me respect. They’re surprised to see an Arab girl who is aggressive and fast on the track, but when we’re all competing, there’s no man or woman –everyone is just the same.”
Next April, Amna will become the first Arab woman to compete in Formula 4 (F4) when she makes her debut at the Italian F4 Championships, driving for the Prema team and reaching speeds of more than 200 km/h.
The F4 category is designed to be an affordable first step from karting – where Formula 1 drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Michael Schumacher got their start – into the high-stakes world of single-seater racing. “I’m the first and hopefully not the last Arab women to make the step,” says Amna.
Hot on Amna’s heels is her 15-year-old sister Hamda, a rising star in the international karting circuit who has also been testing with Prema’s F4 team.
Racing is in their blood: their father, Khaled Al Qubaisi, is a professional racing driver who was part of the first Emirati team to make the podium at last year’s legendary Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, finishing third in class. Mum Kawthar, meanwhile, is their biggest cheerleader. “She believes in us, so I don’t think she’s ever nervous when we’re racing,” says Amna.
The sisters took up karting four years ago and joined the Daman Speed Academy, which aims to develop future Emirati racing pros. They share the same ambition – to become the first Emirati women to compete in Formula 1. However, making it in the male-dominated world of motor racing is no easy feat.
The sport has many successful female engineers, mechanics, officials, team principals, public relations officers and broadcasters, yet women drivers are still hugely underrepresented in competitive racing.
When the season-ending Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix returns to the Yas Marina Circuit in November, there will be no women on the grid. To date, only two women have raced in the F1 series: Maria Teresa de Filippis, who qualified for three races in 1958 and 1959, and Lella Lombardi, who qualified for 12 races from 1974 to 1976 and who finished sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.
“There’s still a rather outdated perception that motor racing is a sport for men, but that’s really not the case,” says motorsport TV presenter Louise Goodman, an ambassador for the Dare to be Different initiative founded by ex-F1 test driver Susie Wolff. The initiative aims to inspire the next generation of female talent.
“I think female drivers lack role models,” Louise continues. “Young male carters can aspire to be the next Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso or any other of the all-male F1 grid. Young female karters look at the higher ranks of the sport and see very few women competing, which isn’t very encouraging.”
Louise believes more needs to be done to encourage females to go into kart racing. “Being successful and making your way up the ladder in car racing is a lot trickier though, whether you’re male or female,” she says. “There’s an extra spotlight on you if you’re a woman, as there are relatively few female drivers; that has its downsides, but it can also work in your favour when it comes to getting media attention.”
Amna feels she has to work harder than her male rivals to prove herself. “With exercise, I have to be as fit or maybe be even fitter than the men around me. In racing, I have to be more focused and more aggressive than them,” she says.
In addition to confronting gender stereotypes, Amna and Hamda have also had to contend with cultural stereotypes about Arab women’s assertiveness when racing in Europe. “They thought I wasn’t going to be aggressive enough, as they have never seen an Arab girl competing in European races. So they were very shocked and surprised that I was good enough and fast enough,” says Amna.
While some peers have questioned their choice of a sport that involves ‘speed and cars,’ the sisters have not faced any of the societal or family pressures that can sometimes prevent women in the region from participating in sports .
“We’re blessed to be from the UAE because the government not only helps women but empowers women in many sectors, not just in sports, and the government supports and motivates us towards reaching our goals,” says Amna.
Meanwhile, corporate initiatives, such as the recent Nike ad that featured five female Muslim athletes, are also helping shatter gender norms and disrupting Western perceptions of Arab women. “The ad inspired me, and no doubt, it inspired many other women, not just in the Middle East but also outside [the region]. It’s giving people different views of how we Arab women are,” says Amna.
While the girls balance the demands of racing with school and university, respectively, they are relaxed about becoming role models themselves. “I not only want to make young Emirati women proud, but I want to create opportunities for them and show them that all Arab women are capable of reaching high levels and maybe breaking the stereotypes,” says Amna. Given her steely determination, she is in pole position to do just that.
Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist.