The following article was written by an Iranian citizen journalist on the ground inside the country, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity.
An unnamed female bodybuilder was arrested on January 17 after she posted a “semi-nude” photograph of herself on Instagram and took part in competitions outside Iran. According to the Iranian judiciary’s news agency Mizan, she was jailed after she was unable to pay a bail amount of 200 million tomans, or a little less than $62,000. The case was handed over to the Special Court for Culture and Media.
Women have been banned from bodybuilding in Iran since the 1979 revolution, and, over the last two years, Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi has made it one of his missions to be vigilant about targeting women taking part in the sport.
Prior to the January arrest, security forces arrested bodybuilder Shirin Nobahari in September 2016.
“Some male athletes have trained women and arrange for them to compete in international competitions,” a September 20, 2016 Mizan report said after Nobahari’s arrest. “Now their semi-nude photographs are everywhere on social networks."
On October 2, 2016 Tehran’s prosecutor, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, confirmed that the male coaches involved in training two female bodybuilders had been banned from continuing their athletic activities, and that Iranian female bodybuilders had been indicted. Dowlatabadi said that the accused had violated “social conventions” and Islamic principles. They were also given travel bans.
Shirin Nobahari, who is the best known of the bodybuilders arrested, was born in 1989 in Mashhad. During the winter of 2015-2016, she posted photographs of herself on Instagram demonstrating her bodybuilding methods and gave an interview to the paper Ghanoon, putting her more in the spotlight than other female bodybuilders in the country.
Nobahari told Ghanoon that people had always described her as “statuesque.” Had she been able to compete professionally in Iran, the Ghanoon reporter asked? “For the moment this is impossible to do in Iran,” she answered. “If you want to compete [professionally] you must go abroad. Of course, that has its own problems, and you might not be able to return after the competition.” She also told the interviewer that she planned to participate in competitions abroad.
According to Nobahari, her family were against her becoming a bodybuilder. “My parents were university professors,” she said. “One of my sisters has a Master’s in food sciences and the other sister a Master’s in physiology. One of my brothers is an inventor and has a few inventions registered to his name. The other two are graduates of computer science and accounting.” Her family hoped Shirin would follow the path of her siblings, but instead, she was set on bodybuilding.
Twice she traveled abroad to participate in unofficial bodybuilding competitions. When she returned the second time, photos of the competition were published on websites. After this, she was banned from leaving Iran.
Muscular Women Are not Acceptable
Mona Poursaleh was born in Tehran to a family of athletes, and now lives in Canada. Her father was a gymnast and her brother a bodybuilder. From childhood she swam, practiced Kung Fu and, later, she became a lifeguard. Her father hired a Norwegian coach to train her to become a lifeguard, but she developed an interest in bodybuilding and so began lifting weights.
Poursaleh says the main reason she left Iran was because she was ridiculed for the size of her muscles. “As long as I was in Iran I had to do light work-outs,” she says. “Otherwise they would mock me. In Iran a muscular woman is not acceptable.” She moved to Canada in 2005 and started competing in 2006. In 2010, Mona won first place in the Ontario Toronto Pro Show. She took second place in June 2011 at the International Federation for Bodybuilding's Toronto Pro Super Show and, on May 18, 2012 placed third in the Ontario Physique Association.
By orders from Tehran’s prosecutor, the Iranian Bodybuilding Federation complained to the international federation about Poursaleh taking part in competitions. According to Iran's federation, the international federation obeyed the orders of Tehran’s prosecutor and accepted the their complaints. “The world federation’s convention approved [the Iranian authorities’ argument] that no woman with an Iranian passport would be allowed to participate in bodybuilding competitions,” Naser Pour Ali Fard, the president of Iran’s Bodybuilding Federation, told the Tasnim News Agency on November 14, 2016. The convention, he said, “decided that no woman with an Iranian passport can participate in events such as bodybuilding. If [a female athlete] tries, she will be turned back on the day of registration for the competitions.” According to the Iranian Bodybuilding Federation, any female athlete with an Iranian passport attempting to register to compete for the forthcoming 2017 Bodybuilding Tournament in Ukraine will not only be refused entry, but federation authorities will also inform the Iranian federation, which will then result in a travel ban and a ban on taking part in the sport in any capacity. However, the website for the international federation does not provide any information to suggest this statement is accurate.
Over the last few months, the two best-known Iranian female bodybuilders, Maryam Sarmadi and Shirin Nobahari, have been interrogated repeatedly. And Mizan News Agency continues to report regularly on women attempting to take part in the sport, finding further fodder for Tehran’s prosecutor.
Pedram Ghaemi, Citizen journalist