The National Olympic Committee of Iran has selected Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, the captain of the Iranian national basketball team, to be the flag bearer for the Iranian team at the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony.
According to a Mehr News Agency report on Monday, June 21, four male athletes made the final shortlist to lead the Olympic team: Basketball captain Samad Nikkhah Bahrami, Milad Ebadipoor, deputy captain of the national volleyball team, Ali Pakdaman from the national sabre fencing team, and Mir Hashem Hosseini from the Iranian national taekwondo team.
It was the first time since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics that no female athlete has been included in the final list of possible flag bearers to represent the Islamic Republic.
Iranians will remember that on August 9, 1999, Homa Hosseini, part of the Iranian national sailing team, led the Iranian athletic delegation as its flag bearer and vanguard during the official opening of the Beijing Olympics.
"An Iranian Muslim woman athlete, observing Islamic standards and fully covered, demonstrating the dignity and serenity of Iranian woman, raised the three-color flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, announced.
But three days later, on June 11, things changed dramatically. Ahmad Alam al-Hoda, the representative of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic and the Friday imam of Mashhad delivered a speech attacking the very concept of an Iranian woman leading the Iranian athletes and representing Iran in such a prominent way.
"Our team's flag should not be carried by a female athlete when it comes to international events,” he said. “This is a matter of upholding values . Do you understand what you are doing? Don’t you see when you put a woman forth to lead in an international event it is nothing less than disobeying the orders of the Shia imams?"
Ahmad Alam al-Hoda followed in a long line of hardliner clerics who have taken a firm stance against women athletes. In December 2010, Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, a source of emulation (and so equipped with the moral authority to take religious decisions) from Qom, announced that the idea of women athletes traveling outside Iran to compete was shameful and should not be allowed.
Ayatollah Abbas Ka'abi, another member of the Qom Seminary Lecturers' Association, called Iranian women’s participation in the Olympics and Asian Games "unfortunate, strange, and a source of disappointment."
In fact, very recently, in February 2021, Ayatollah Habibolah Shabani, the Hamedan representative for the Supreme Leader and the Friday prayers leader for the city, met with Arash Miresmaeili, the president of the Judo Federation of Iran, and complained about the federation’s suspension following political interference from international sports institutions, which he said were under the influence of Western governments and their policies. He also urged Miresmaeili and other sporting heads not to use Iranian women athletes as tools for propaganda.
Shabani likely views the idea of women taking part in the opening ceremony of the Olympics as an example of such propaganda. And yet, he also has his own propaganda objectives in mind: Like Fars News Agency, he sees the value of Iranian women promoting the Islamic veil through their international appearances.
The criticism of Ayatollah Alam al-Hoda and other Shia high authorities made it impossible for Iranian women to lead their national team during the Parade of Nations at the 2012 London Olympics too, despite Asghar Rahimi, the secretary for the Asian and Olympic Games logistical team, telling Mehr News Agency that it was likely a female athlete would lead the procession at the opening ceremony. In the end, boxer Ali Mazaheri was seen on screens around the world leading the team into the Games.
Then came Rio, and a relative victory: It was decided that Zahra Nemati, a Paralympic shooter, would carry the flag, and the decision was not reversed. This time Iran’s propagandists decided they once again had a good opportunity to put Nemati forward as a proud women athlete and proof of the Islamic Republic’s respect for the achievements of women athletes. It was there for the world to see on the night of the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
Both the Iran newspaper website and the Iranian Students’ News Agency boasted that Zahra Nemati’s prominence in the ceremony had attracted the attention of world media, though it stopped short of naming which outlets covered the story. Such referencing would have presumably amounted to an acknowledgment of media that was under the influence of Western powers.
Iran’s long running and barely-hidden hostility toward women athletes and the Olympics is made clear by the story of Lida Freeman, who carried the Iranian flag for the 1994 Atlanta Olympics opening ceremony. Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) considered Freeman's presence in the Olympics as a sign of the success of Iranian women, claiming that the presence of a woman in Iran’s procession had aroused the admiration of the world. "The presence of this Muslim woman thwarted the conspiracies of the poisoned Western media," proclaimed an article published in Kayhan newspaper the day after the opening ceremony.
In an interview with the Iranian Labour News Agency in 2010, Lida Freeman, after years of silence, described how, three months after the Atlanta Olympics and while she was competing in the Asian Games in Tokyo, one of Iran's most powerful sports authorities had told her: "We are doing everything so that your name will never be mentioned in sports again.” Once again, Iranian authorities’ disrespect for women athletes was laid bare. Every time they claim pride, it is only to so they can use these talented athletes for propaganda steeped in misogyny and a warped sense of what the Olympic values mean.
And, in 2021, it continues. Hamideh Abbasali, the most honored Iranian female karateka, has widely been tipped to win a medal at the Games in Tokyo. But a quick review of the list of people who had been considered suitable to lead the Iranian team into the global competition reveals that her name, as well as the name of all other women athletes competing, has been left off.