We explore the desert with Egypt's only female dune racer, Yara Shalaby, and dig deep with her about challenges of competing in a male-dominated sport and her future aspirations in assembling the Middle East's first all-female racing squad.
We are driving down the dusty Cairo-Fayoum desert road while a playful sun deceives the winter. On the side of the road, just outside a run-down gas station, Egypt’s only female rally racer is waiting for us to carry out a short drive to the desert where she will race and loop across the dunes. As we pull over, a radiant Yara Shalaby comes out of her Land Cruiser to greet us; her six-year-old son Amen and her friend Hoda are following from behind.
The winner of last year’s Pharaons' International Cross Country Rally, Shalaby ranked among the top six champions in the nation’s most important competitions for the past two years, including El Gouna Rally Cup, El Remal Desert Challenge Rally, and Al Farouky Desert Challenge. A zealous racer who does not find boundaries when it comes to challenging herself, the 34-year-old pilot is now training to race at the Intercontinental Rally next January, followed by the Abu Dhabi Desert Challenge in March. Her most pressing goal right now is not a personal one, as her focus is presently set on assembling the Gazelle Rally Team, the first all-female Middle Eastern racing squad.
“That’s my biggest dream, to have an all-women rally team racing internationally. It’s a challenge and it is very rare to find, but I have the determination to become the first one to achieve a good position with an all-female team. That’s what’s going on in the back of my mind; whatever the obstacles are, I want to do this. I don’t believe anything is impossible,” she says, her eloquent words echoing against a mild wind as we sit in front of Lake Qarun. In a few minutes, we will be jumping the curves of the dunes, wrapped up by seatbelts and shelled within the iron case in her Toyota rally car. “I have tried to gather up a female team in the Pharaons tour, but it was not strong and the car was not really ready, so I ended up spending the whole night in the desert and racing without any rest for 24 hours,” she recalls, as she tunes the wheels to kick off our ride on the sand.
Thinking of the Speed Sisters, Palestine’s internationally renowned female car racing team, Shalaby wants to take female sporting to another level and add women as co-pilots and mechanics on track. “It is difficult because, in a cross-country rally, you need a specific mechanic who has to be equipped with spare parts and knowledge to get out of problems, or to make it ready for the next stage,” she says. “It also requires a co-pilot who knows how to navigate the desert; it's not just know-how, she has to be fond of it. It's very difficult, and that’s how I like it: when it is more challenging. I am finding active co-pilots in Egypt but it’s hard to find an Egyptian female mechanic, but I believe we can do it."
The roads surrounding Lake Qarun are deceitful, with patches of the ground tricking the cars into the swallowing sand that was once buried under the lake; but Shalaby takes the lead, gets off her car, and perfectly masters each trick to toe up our van. She knows she is going against the flow in a male-dominated society where gender roles are an insurmountable zone; but, in her struggle against societal boundaries, actions speak louder than words.
“Most people have the mindset that women cannot drive in general so, when they find out I am doing good at racing, they question whether I am really the one driving,” she says. “The first time I reached 2nd place, I had old competitors coming to ask me: ‘are you sure it was not the co-pilot who drove?’ People cannot really believe that women can race, especially in the desert,” she says, dismissing the very idea that women are less apt for the adrenaline-driven sport. “I don't see it more challenging because I am a woman. Yes, we are physically not as tough as men; but if you enjoy what you are doing and you train to stay fit, you can do exactly the same as a man,” she exclaims.
Raised as the only girl among three brothers, Shalaby felt the competitive spirit from an early age. “My family was supportive since the beginning; but they only thought I was going to spend a night in the desert and have some fun,” she laughs. “When I took it to competitions, they said 'No' right away. They were worried I may get injured or have an accident while racing, but slowly, they realized that it is safe and I take precautions. Now, we reached the level where they encourage me, and they are happy that I am achieving this and going for my dream.”
Today, she juggles her roles as the mother of little Amen, an IT specialist at the bank, and a professional rally racer; all three identities at the same time. “Amen loves to get in the race car with me,” she says of her son’s adventurous spirit, who goes rock-climbing at the age of six, “but he asks me not to race on a motorcycle because I recently had an accident and hurt my leg,” she adds.
Now gearing up to compete at the international level, Shalaby partnered with sporting addicts, Dune Raider, to join her in building the all-female Gazelle Rally Team. “Most of our team comes from different communities of sports and outdoor sports, so our relationship with most of these communities is very tight and we always seek to support them,” says Mohamed Fadly, Dune Raider’s Business Development Manager.
“We aim to help these communities grow bigger and stronger; that’s how the idea of managing eco and desert sports teams came to light. Yara, as the only female driver in Egypt, was a very promising experience for us, so we are partnering to help her go on the international scene. The trip is starting on the December 3rd in the UAE, where Yara will participate in a local rally called Emirates Motorplex,” he adds.
“I met Karim, the founder of Dune Raider, before even starting to race,” says Shalaby. “He encouraged me and advised me on how to get into the desert and what the best car was for me. So, after having problems in my first race, I called him to be my co-pilot and we ended up coming in second. That's how we began thinking about a partnership,” she adds.
“At a certain point I was everything: driver, team manager, and marketing manager, but no one can do everything. Dune Raider loves the racing spirit, and they have marketing and PR experience, so now we are partners,” she explains, as she shares her aspirations to race in Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia. “Although I know they will not allow women to drive in KSA, these countries have amazing deserts that are really challenging; that’s what I like,” she says with a mischievous smile.
Driven, extremely passionate, and charmingly unpretentious, Shalaby’s eyes light up every time she says the word 'difficult'. “It gives a different taste than driving with zero obstacles. When it is difficult, you need to think ahead and plan; and when you get stuck, it has a different flavour,” she concludes.
Photoshoot by Mo4Productions team.
Photography: Fouad El Batrawy
Videography: Mohamed Daoud