Iran: Predicaments of Being a Sportswoman in Iran

Iran Opinion

Ahmadinejad is leaving, but the memories of his era linger, bitter mostly, for some more than others, none, perhaps, more bitter than those of the Iranian sportswomen, athletes whose challenge begins way before the starting gun and ends... well it never really ends. Here, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, whatever the name, discrimination is the game.


And eight years of Ahmadinejad has only made it worse.


Take as one example a recent official ‘party’ to celebrate the achievements of Iranian footballers. The ceremony was hald at Tehran’s main stadium; five men teams were invited, and the women Futsal team. The whole thing was most probably planned as yet another publicity stunt for the President in his last days. It ended, however, as but one more telling tale of what sportswomen have gone through in the past eight years.


The Women Futsal team were invited because they had made history, had come second in the 2013 Asian Indoor Games in South Korea. It was the first time a women team from Iran won a medal in a ball game in Asia. They had lost only once, in extra-time to the Champions, Japan. And so they were invited to the ceremony, only to be embarrassed. None were allowed to leave the CIP lounge. They had to stand behind the pane and watch their male counterparts applauded for their accomplishments. To add insult to injury, the organisers did not mention the Women Futsal Team throughout the ceremony.    


The Team complained afterwards: why drag them from faraway cities to the Capital, why invite them, if they were to remain ‘unseen’. Shahrzad Mozafar, the head coach - nick named Shahrzad Capello - was furious: “What was the point of them being there if their names weren’t to be mentioned, or they weren’t to appear on the field? These girls have paid from their own pocket to get here, and now they're being sent back, again at their own expense, and with empty hands”. Fahimeh Zarei, one of the stars of the team, later told reporters how with great difficulty she had managed to pay for her journey. She lives in Bashagard, a small town in one of the more deprived provinces of Iran, some 1400 km from the Capital, Tehran. 


The treatment of the Women Futsal team hints only briefly at the overall situation of women sports in Iran. And still they are the lucky ones. True, they have to play in women-only arenas, or with the full Islamic outfit in international matches, but at least the footballers can be in a team, they do get to play. There are but sports that are banned altogether: wrestling, weight lifting, boxing; and there are others like swimming and gymnastics that are permitted strictly in women-only environments, which means there is no possibility for women in these sports to compete in international tournaments.


'Degrading to Muslim women'


In 2011, authorities in the Ministry of Sports and Youth decided to ban Kick Boxing and Muay Thai for women. Of all combat sports which have official, international organisations for women, these were the only ones with a functioning federation in Iran. The decision was made - coincidentally perhaps - in the midst of a series of reports which hinted at an unprecedented surge in the number of women training in martial arts, something they probably believed could use in self defence on the streets - or at home.


Explaining the ban, Marzieh Akbarabadi, the Deputy for Women in the Ministry of Sports and Youth, said such sports had an ‘aggressive nature’, and could affect the health and the well-being of the ‘future mothers’. The values and customs entailed in these sports, she argued, clashed with Islamic principles. The decision raised some objections even among the officials. The head of Martial Arts Association in one province called it ‘scientifically unfounded’. The Ministry, however, reiterated the argument: martial arts are not only in conflict with ‘health principles’, ‘social values’ and ‘cultural norms’, but also ‘degrading to Muslim women’.


Ms Akbarabadi, the Deputy Minister, who one expects to be looking after the interests of sportswomen in Iran, is in fact a stern advocate of full Islamic dress code. She was the one who ordered the players in the women National Football Team to wear something like a shower-cap on top of their head scarves. Even the Football Federation of Iran advised against it, to no avail. This item was beyond what FIFA allows for Muslim players. It was bound to cause trouble, and it did.


Iran faced Jordan in the qualifying round of the 2012 Olympics. The teams walked to the pitch, all was set, but picking up on the unsolicited head gear, the AFC representative required the referee to call the game off. The rest - the tears, the disbelief, the anger - is history. Only it isn’t.


Against all odds


In many other Muslim countries, it is the sportswoman who chooses, according to her faith,  to cover her body. In Iran, however, the government considers all but the one outfit it designs ‘un-Islamic’. So it is not enough to cover one’s head and body. The ‘cover’ - and this is what they really call it, not kit, not outfit, not gear, ‘cover’ - it must be loose. It must cover not just skin, but shape.


It is not hard to see that the ‘Islamic cover’ creates major competitive disadvantages for Iranian women in international tournaments. In 2012 World Athletics Championships in Seoul, Maryam Tousi, the first Iranian woman to win a gold in Athletics in Asia, had to wear a white, clearly oversized T-shirt over the already Islamic outfit that she had. Next to her in the starting line stood Veronica Campbell Brown, the 400m World Champion whose short and top probably weighed less than Tousi’s head cover.


Despite all the hindrance she did manage to come through above strong competitors from Nigeria, Republic of Suriname, Mauritius, Maldives, Chad, Gambia and Cambodia.


For some sportswomen like Leyla Rajabi (Shot Put) or Susan Hajipoor (Taekwondo) the ‘Islamic cover’ is in relative terms less of a disadvantage. But when it comes to their overall situation in the mainly government funded sports scene, they fare no better. The state-run television for example, refrains from broadcasting the achievements of the Iranian sportswomen. Their pictures, when and if published in a magazine or a newspapers, are often edited and distorted with the intention to tone down any feminine features; an issue that has made Iranian sportswomen the subject of much ridicule in social networks.


As mentioned at the beginning, eight years of Ahmadinejad only aggravated what was already a difficult situation. The Iranian women in general, and the sportswomen in particular, are now eagerly awaiting the inauguration of Hassan Rowhani. They no doubt have an array of demands from the next administration. For all those stripped by cover of their rights, the slightest of changes in a cover could mean victory.