By Aresu Eqbali
TEHRAN - When behind the wheel, Iranian women have to put up with all sorts of verbal abuse from the testosterone-charged types that dominate the Islamic republic's highways -- such as being told to tend to a washing machine rather than a car.
But Iran's women drivers, most of whom are clearly ill at ease navigating the anarchic road network, now have a national idol: a young woman nicknamed "Little Schumacher".
Laleh Seddigh, 28, is fast emerging as one of Iran's foremost race car drivers, leaving the best of the men racers behind in her saloon car.
"Resistance from men does not bother me," Seddigh told AFP at a recent track race event held at Tehran's Azadi stadium. "Once I get on the track I like to use my technical skills, take control and dominate the other drivers."
At the race, the petite woman racer caused yet another upset by beating off her fellow 12 Proton teammates -- all of whom are men -- much to the delight of the small group of female fans watching from their part of the segregated stadium.
"In Iran, whenever there is a traffic jam and there is a woman in it, the male drivers ridicule her and blame only her," noted Nazanin, a 22-year-old race fan. "It's a relief to see there is someone like Laleh."
"It is not only her high level of self-confidence," explained her trainer Saeed A'rabian, himself a former national champion. "She is extremely talented and has got a very nice style."
Until Seddigh became a professional driver three years ago, she was just one of the many relatively wealthy young people who cruise and race around town -- breaking several bones and earning the nickname of "little Schumacher" after the German Formula One champion Michael.
She learned how to drive at the age of just 13, and admits to having "snatched the car keys and sneaked out of the house, always in fear of police" before she got her driving license.
At her day job Seddigh works as a managing director of a trade company that produces spare car parts, but full-time racing beckons with sponsorship offers from Proton, Mazda and Hyundai.
But keeping afloat in the male-dominated sport is still not plain sailing for Seddigh.
"The last time I won a race, people were gossiping. They said my victory was fixed. Even some women in the carting and rally scene doubt my success," Seddigh recounted.
"And every time I want to practice or make a test drive, the track staff ask me for a letter of permission -- even though I am the captain of the Proton speed team. Men never have this kind of hassle."
And then there is the conservative state television's coverage of her wins: even though Seddigh pulls a poncho over her tight race overalls before taking the winners' podium, pictures of her holding a trophy are for some reason censored.