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Iranian Imams are Obstacles for Women in Sports

March 3, 2021
7 min read
The Isfahan Mountaineering Board wrote to clubs stating that women mountaineers and rock climbers must train at indoor facilities only
The Isfahan Mountaineering Board wrote to clubs stating that women mountaineers and rock climbers must train at indoor facilities only
The Friday prayers Imam of Darcheh said men and women athletes taking part in climbing were engaged in "dirty work"
The Friday prayers Imam of Darcheh said men and women athletes taking part in climbing were engaged in "dirty work"
In December 2010, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, a “source of emulation” in Qom, said promoting female athletes is  shameful and should be avoided
In December 2010, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, a “source of emulation” in Qom, said promoting female athletes is shameful and should be avoided

Following an attack on female Iranian mountaineers, a climbing association has issued a ban on female rock climbers but has done nothing to confront the perpetrator — a Friday prayers imam.

On February 24, 2021, a video was released of the Friday Imam of Darcheh in Isfahan province lashing out at both male and female climbers training in Kuhe Sefid and describing their sport as "dirty work”.

Soon after, the Isfahan Mountaineering Board announced that it had identified the person responsible for the crime and that he would face prosecution.

But just three days later, on February 27, the board informed mountaineering groups that female climbers could not train outdoors and that all activities should now take place at suitable indoor facilities.

The mountaineering authority, which issued its announcement via a letter, referred to the imam who attacked the female climbers as  an “intruder" and carrying out the Muslim crime of “enjoining vice”.

A History of Discrimination

Although the unfolding events may strike many as bizarre, it is certainly not the first time a Friday prayers imam has unilaterally made a decision about women's sports, and doing so through expressing extremist and dogmatic views. In fact, Friday imams and clerics have been one of the main barriers to women's sports over the last four decades.

When the Iranian Football Federation established the Women's Football Federation in 2004, Khadijeh Spanji became its first vice president and committee chairperson. But Spanji didn’t spend her time in an office, in the gym or on at the football and futsal players’ training grounds. She traveled the road between Tehran and Qom, visiting the “sources of emulation” — Iran’s senior mullahs — to persuade them to lift the effective ban on women's football. From 2000, women had only been allowed to practice and play in futsal halls, without men being present, and wearing the mandatory hijab.

Finally, in 2007, Khadijeh Spanji was successful: she obtained a license to launch women's soccer in 2007. However, it was not FIFA, the Asian Football Confederation, or the Physical Education Organization that approved the uniform they wore, it was the Qom sources of emulation.

Friday imams also played a key role in bringing in the ban on women attending football stadiums. In 2006, shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a communique to Mohammad Aliabadi, who was then head of the Physical Education Organization, announcing that the doors of football stadiums would be open to women, senior cleric Ahmad Khatami’s voiced his opposition during Friday prayers in Tehran. "I consider the importance of observing hijab and chastity to be the main factor in the clerics' opposition to the presence of women in stadiums. Who can guarantee women will observe Islamic decency in stadiums when they watch sports matches?"

However, in February 2016, Morteza Aghatehrani, a cleric close to revered influential Shia cleric Mesbah Yazdi, claimed in an interview with the weekly publication Password that Mesbah Yazdi was behind the protest and revoked the order of the president at the time. He criticized football for encouraging athletes to be”semi-naked".

Mehdi Ghoreishi, the Friday prayer Imam of Varamin, said what he described as a "media attempt" to open the stadium doors to women was "the highest insult to the women of the Islamic society,” adding: "The women of society themselves should beat these people and not allow some indecent foreign women to set an example for them. "

Ali Vahdanifar, the Friday prayer Imam of Dehdasht, also made his views public in the days leading up to efforts to persuade the Iranian Football Federation that women should be allowed to enter Iranian stadiums: "When people are having economic problems, some people are begging women to go to the stadiums." He called on members of parliament and the Hezbollah community to engage with this "norm-breaking."

Mir Ahmad Hajati, the Friday prayers leader for Ahvaz, warned that people who supported women being allowed into stadiums were part of a "government's game to make the people to forget inflation,” adding: “Don’t do anything to incite a Hezbollahi to do something."

The list of Friday imams who have led a backlash against any action taken by women's rights activists to open the doors of the stadiums and bring the issue to the Friday prayers podium is not limited to these few orators.

In fact, these are just a handful of examples of efforts that have kept the doors of Iranian stadiums closed to women.

The Imoral Activity of Cycling

Women's cycling has also been targeted by clerics and Friday imams, and every time they have turned their attention to the sport, it has resulted in more restrictions being placed on women cyclists. And they have targeted non-athletes, ordinary female citizens, as well, voicing their opposition to any woman cycling at all. 

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa about cycling on September 19, 2016. "Women's cycling in public is forbidden, as well as in any space where they can be exposed to non-mahrams [a failure to observe sacred Islamic values].” Following this fatwa, even Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice president for women and family affairs, who had previously stated that there was “no law in Islamic Republic prohibiting women cycling," backed down, saying: "The aspects of this issue need to be examined."

There was no need to examine. In June 2020, Seyyed  Mohsen Mahmoudi, the interim Friday imam for Varamin, said a society in which men allow their daughters to ride bicycles was "deviant," demanding to know: “What moral value is compatible with a woman riding bicycle?”

On the same day, the Friday prayer Imam of Tabriz, Seyed Mohammad Ali Al-Hashemi, denounced those who encouraged women to cycle, and men who remained silent on the issue, branding them cowards.

On July 9, 2020 Isfahan Ziba newspaper, which is published by Isfahan Municipality, published a photograph of Isfahani women cycling. A day later, Ayatollah Seyed Abolhassan Mahdavi, the Friday prayer Imam of Isfahan and a member of the Assembly of Experts, called on the Isfahan municipality to refrain from discussing women's cycling because Islamic scholars forbid it. He then told Isfahan City Council: "Take action before the religious people force you to observe the divine restrictions."

Ayatollah Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, the Friday imam of Mashhad, presented a unique description of  women's cycling in June 2020. He claimed that women cyclists "set fire to the instincts of young people.” The flames, he said, were ”uncontrollable.”

Influence Beyond Iran's Borders

And the power of the Friday Imams’ sermons goes beyond the borders of Iran. The Revolutionary Guards Corps has such influence in neighboring countries, it is in a position to interfere in a huge range of matters, even in the affairs of Iraq, its stadiums and the women who live there.

On Saturday, August 3, 2019, the Iraqi Football Federation issued a statement apologizing for an event that took place during the opening ceremony of the West Asian Football Tournament at the Karbala Stadium.

Two days before the apology, during the opening ceremony of the tournament, a number of women entered the stadium dressed in red, white and black and went on to the grassy playing field to dance to Arabic music.

The stadium was built by the Revolutionary Guards and was inaugurated in the presence of Mohammad Reza Davarzani, who was then Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth, and the presidents of Iran's sports federations.

Hossein Khalifeh, a hardliner cleric, asked for the Iraqi government to instantly suppress the movement. Friday prayer imam Ayatollah Hossein Hamadani Karaj described the move as "an insult to the third Imam of Shias" and called on the Iranian foreign diplomacy apparatus to interfere as a matter of urgency.

In August 2008, the Friday imam of Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, criticized the behavior of Homa Hosseini, an Iranian female rower. At the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, Hosseini claimed the Iranian revolution was a "revolution of values” and that women’s participation and success in the Games was against the principles and values of Islam and the revolution.

In December 2010, Qom Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani said sending female athletes to compete abroad is a shame and should be avoided.

The same Friday imam, whose Friday prayer sermons routinely banned and restricted various women's sporting activities, complained about the "political view" European countries had regarding the issue of sports. The latest case is that of Ayatollah Habibollah Shabani, who claims that international sports institutions and federations have been influenced by the policies of Western governments.

In a meeting with Arash Miresmaeili, Shabani, the president of the suspended Iranian Judo Federation, advocated a ban on Iranian judokas and athletes facing Israeli rivals. "They insist that sport should not be political, but their actions are highly political, and do not respect others' rights." This, of course, raises yet another matter of politics and sport in Iran, and one that has also been controversial and divisive for over four decades. 



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