When Mehrdad Karamzadeh, the Paralympian discus thrower and winner of a silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympics, refused to shake the hand of the Duchess of Cambridge, he earned the praise of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who celebrated the gesture as a “symbol of perseverance.”
“Our young man did not shake hands with the lady who wanted to hang the medal on his neck,” he told a group of athletes on March 14, 2013, about six months after Iranian teams had returned from the Games. “This is a very valuable thing. We do not do this only because of our religious zeal or to proselytize our faith. This is a symbol of the perseverance, resolution and steel of the nature of the Iranian people. These are the things that give value to a nation. Appreciate them and promote them. Spiritualty in sports helps sports. It helps the national honor, too.”
During the 2012 award presentation ceremony, Karamzadeh made it obvious he was not prepared to shake the Duchess’ hand, first by putting his hands behind his back and then by resting them on his chest as a sign of appreciation and respect.
Upholding “Iranian-Islamic Dignity”
Ayatollah Khamenei was so impressed by Karamzadeh’s gesture that three days after the event, he wrote to Mahmoud Khosravi Vafa, the president of Iran’s National Paralympics Committee. In highly ornate language, he praised the Paralympics team for safeguarding “the principles of Iranian-Islamic dignity” and referred to them and their families as “the light in the eyes of the Iranian people” who had won great victories by asking for the help o the “Islamic Republic’s martyrs.”
When he met with the returning athletes, Khamenei had a short one-to-one talk with Karamzadeh, during which he compared his gesture to “a call to prayers from a mountaintop that reaches the sky.” He also thanked him for not shaking hands with “strange” women.
The gratitude the Supreme Leader expressed was related not only to the unwritten moral codes of the Islamic Republic, but also specifically to its laws on how athletes must behave — rules that have dominated all Iranian sports since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. When Iranian athletes take part in international competitions, they must avoid shaking hands with the opposite sex, especially in award ceremonies. High-level Iranian officials never fail to reiterate this order when it comes to international competitions. Yet because Karamzadeh’s refusal to shake hands with a member of the British royal family made international headlines, the Supreme Leader could not resist responding to it.
Media outlets had different takes on the incident. A day after the Iranian Paralympic athlete’s gesture, United Press International explained to its readers that in Iran and a number of other Muslim countries, men and women who are not related to one another are banned from touching each other. But British tabloid the Sun condemned Karamzadeh’s behavior, stating that in British culture, refusing the hand of a member of the royal family amounted to a show of disrespect to the country.
But, according to Daily Express, another British newspaper, a royal family spokesperson played down the incident, responding that many athletes from Islamic countries regularly avoid shaking hands with unfamiliar women for religious and cultural reasons, and in their cultures this is not a sign of disrespect.
Despite firm rules of conduct backed up by Iranian law, there is actually nothing in Iran’s penal code that specifies punishment for athletes who shake hands with a person of the opposite sex during medal ceremonies. Instead, the security department of the sports ministry or the supervisory committee of the Iranian National Olympics Committee decide on the punishment — and this can be quite arbitrary. For instance, the discus thrower Ehsan Haddadi, who won a gold medal at the 2006 Asian Games, shook hands with one of the women who presented the medals. Immediately after returning to Iran, he was summoned by the above agencies and reprimanded, but he was not banned from taking part in future international competitions. Haddadi learned his lesson, though. Since then, whenever he has been on the podium and a woman has the task of hanging the medals around the necks of athletes, he has made sure to put his hands behind his back and avoided shaking hands.
The same thing happened with the wushu athlete Mohsen Mohammad Seifi at the 2009 Toronto competitions, where he won a silver medal.
When the female Iranian wushu athlete Elaheh Mansourian won a bronze at the 2010 Asian Games, she refused to shake hands with the male medal presenter. Instead she put her hands together to express her appreciation and respect.
At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Iranian woman taekwondo athletes Fatemeh Rouhani and Akram Khodabandeh won silver medals. When they stood on the podium to receive their medals, the male presenters extended their hands. Both Iranian athletes put their hands on their chests as a sign of respect but refused to shake hands.
Although Rouhani and Khodabandeh had not been the first female athletes to do this when confronted with male medal presenters, their gesture in Incheon prompted the hardliner newspaper Kayhan to find fault with the Iranian sports establishment. “This action by medal presenters,” an article in the paper published on October 4, 2014, said, “shows the diplomatic weakness of the Iranian sports representative who failed to tell the organizers of the ceremonies to make the point [about not shaking hands] to medal presenters.”
The most recent example of an Iranian athlete refusing to shake hands with presenters of the opposite sex is Ali Hashemi, a weightlifter who competes in the men’s 105-kilogram class. Hashemi won two golds and a bronze medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim near Los Angeles in early December 2017. He refused to shake hands with the female representative of the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) during the medal ceremonies. When the surprised representative insisted, he bowed to her and said “I am a Muslim. I cannot shake hands with you.”