Noora Naraghi was the first Iranian women's motocross champion. She won the off-road competition in 2009, an event that changed her life. This is enough to set her apart from many women her age. But what really makes her unique is her extensive experience, and how she came to be where she is today.
Noora’s father, Mehrshad Naraghi, is a former motorcycling champion. After he married Noora’s mother Shahrzad Nazifi, he helped his wife become a professional motorcyclist. Then he put their son and daughter straight on to a motorcycle and taught them how to ride. Noora started when she was only four, in 1992. “I don’t know whether first I learned to walk or ride a motorcycle,” she says with a smile, adding that she owes this to both her parents.
During a 2009 competition in Kouhsar Forest Park, north of Tehran, Noora took first place, and her mother won second. Naraghi’s name regularly appears in sports journals and websites, and she is cited in Nina Ansary’s book Jewels of Allah: The Untold Stories of Women In Iran, which won an International Book Award in 2016, and in Don’t Be Afraid: Live Your Life by Hasti Hesari. Today, she is best known for competing in motocross, or off-road, races.
Can you tell us about 2009 and the day you won the motocross championship?
I didn’t expect to win. The world probably couldn’t even believe that an Iranian woman could ride a motorcycle, let alone take part in such a high-risk competition. But, well, I did grow up with motorcycles, and injuries have been part of daily life for me.
After the competition, I got many requests for interviews from both domestic and foreign media. I think it was a reporter from French national TV who asked me who my role model was. Without hesitation I said Ms. Ashley Fiolek. Ashley, a deaf 17-year old American woman, was the motocross champion of her country. I told the reporter that I would love to meet her one day, talk to her, watch her race and cheer her on. A few days later I received an email. “It’s Ashley,” it said. “I read your interview. I’d like to invite you to come to America so we can race together.”
So that’s how you got to America? As simple as that?
As simple as that. I still get excited when I talk about it. In response to a request from Ashley, a number of major US companies sponsored me and invited me to go to the States. When I went to the US embassy with my documents and those invitations, I still couldn’t believe it. I thought somebody was pulling my leg.
When I arrived, Ashley told me that first we would take part in a short competition together, and if I were a real professional I could participate in the American Motorcyclist Association competitions.
Then Stefy Bau, a former champion who could not compete anymore because of her injuries, contacted me. I was invited to take a course at her school. When I finished the course, she invited me to stay on as a coach. She and I taught female motorcyclists. She taught me what being a coach and a teacher meant. When the course ended, I said I wanted to return to Iran.
Were Fiolek and Bau surprised by this decision?
Very surprised. I could just as easily have stayed. But my wish was to help Iranian girls. All the time I was in America, I kept telling myself: “the only reason you got where you are is that you had an objective other than something for yourself.” So imagine if I had stayed. What would have happened? Somebody else would have had to start all over again from nothing. I thought I would return to my country like a good soldier. This is what I told Voice of America when they interviewed me for television.
Were you treated like a victorious soldier when you returned?
No. I don’t like to think about those days. I was summoned. They asked me why I went and what I did while I was there. I said that if I had not been thinking about my people and my country then I would not have worn clothes with the Iranian flag on them — whether I was competing or in classes or coaching or talking to the media. “Why would I have returned if I were against Iran?” I said. “I could have stayed there.”
You had competed in the biggest international races, and then you vanished when you returned to Iran. There was nothing in the media about you.
Going back to the past doesn’t help me, or other female motorcyclists. What fills my heart with pride is that today Iranian girls ride motorcycles and take part in competitions. The rest is not important. I am only one page in this story. Everybody has ups and downs in her life. There are many factors at work, both personal and social. At first, the media would come and talk to me, but one day they came and I did not talk. I wanted to mind my own business. Or perhaps I had achieved my goal. There was no need to talk anymore.
Some have said that Behnaz Shafiei was the first woman to win at motorcycle racing in Iran. You tend to race in motocross competitions, whereas Shafiei takes part in both off- and on-road racing. It’s the same with coaching — some say you were first, and some people say Shafiei was. Does this matter to you?
Even if I had stayed in America, I would have wished that Iranian women would continue to participate in domestic and international competitions. It makes no difference whether I organize it or somebody else does. It has never been my objective to be the first. I believe we should invite participants from all provinces and ask all women to register, not only our own students.
Your efforts have given life to a sport that had previously banned women. What do you say to that?
In 2009, when the first competition took place, it had only eight participants in Iran. I finished first, my mother came second and Shirin Ahmadi Adib was third. Shirin’s father was from the same generation as my father and, like my father, he was a professional motorcyclist before the revolution.
Before the revolution, women did not take part in motorcycle races. There were some competitions for university students, but they lacked a national scope.
Today, Iranian women suffer from depression because they have to sit at home or for a thousand other reasons. Motorcycling is an exciting sport that increases adrenalin. I am trying to get Iranian women out of their homes and into this sport so the depression subsides.
Motorcycling is an expensive sport. Isn’t it difficult for people, and especially women, to pay for it?
Of course. In America they give you free motorcycles and getting specialist outfits is much easier. Here a motorcycle that I might need will cost at least 35 million tomans [close to $11,000]. But for many reasons, I have had it easier these last years. First, my father always had a few motorcycles at home. Second, I always had an sponsor. Third, I am a coach and teach women how to motorcycle — and not only that. I try to teach them how to live, how to be better human beings and how to do useful things. I have also studied interior design and work as an interior designer. I do design for wedding ceremonies. I teach music too. The expenses are high but, well, we try to manage.
You have had a lot of ups and downs throughout your career, and at the moment its seems to be going well for you. After all, we are having this conversation at a bodybuilding gym, and we hear you are organizing a national motocross competition soon. Was this the result of your own personal determination or there were social and other factors involved as well?
What is important is that things have happened. A set of factors came together so today I can say that my country is now a better place to live. When you put all these factors together there is reason to be hopeful. When everything grows, people automatically go higher, too. The women of my country are competing in motorcycling races. And for this I must thank the new officials at the Motorcycling Federation.