Female athletes and officials have faced harsh discrimination for many decades in the Islamic Republic, and, despite warnings from international sports federations tasked with upholding the principles of the International Olympic Charter, this unjust treatment and disrespect continues. In fact, it seems to be policy for the Ministry of Sports and Youth.
Over the last few years, ministry officials have found a new way to taunt and abuse women working in sport: blackmailing them with private photographs. The photographs may be private — images of journeys abroad or parties or family gatherings — but the threats are not. One of those who was forced out of her job was Golnar Vakil Gilani. More recently, Shadi Paridar has been targeted.
This particular dirty game played by the Ministry of Sports and Youth of Iran goes back to at least 2017, when Mohammad Reza Davarzani was the deputy for the ministry’s development of championship and professional sports.
On September 24, 2017, the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported that Golnar Vakil Gilani, the president of the polo federation, had been fired after 17 months in the job.
A day after Vakil Gilani’s dismissal, who at the time was 37 years old and the youngest president of an Iranian sports federation to date, rumors emerged that she was being pressured, and that it had very little to do with sport. The pressure was undeniably political. She told the Entekhab website that the reason for her dismissal was unsportsmanlike and even immoral.
On October 3, the ministry officially announced that she had been fired. On October 4, Qazvin member of parliament Fatemeh Zarabadi and Tehran MP Fatemeh Hosseini gave formal notification to the Minister of Sports and Youth regarding the reason for the removal of the polo federation president.
Vakil Gilani talked to Mizan News Agency and suggested there was no place for women in the country’s sports management. "The country's sports officials talk about youth or women management, but, unfortunately, in practice this is not the case.” She added: “Some cowardly people have published my private photos. I know who did it, but I do not want to name him."
A day after the reprimand from parliament, Golnar Vakil Gilani was more guarded in her comments to Tasnim News Agency. ”I do not know the reason, but my replacement must have been in the interest of the country's sports for the Minister of Sports to make such a decision,” she told the agency.
She also explained that she "must" respect the decision taken by Iran’s Ministry of Sports and Youth.
After that, Golnar Vakil Gilani remained silent for several weeks, until December 2017. Finally, in an interview with Etemad newspaper, she revealed what Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth at the time, had told her. "He called me to his office several times and every time he said that if I did not resign, my private photos would be published on Telegram. He actually threatened me and said: why was I not wearing hijab in the photos? I always explained that those photos were completely private and were sent to him without my permission, but he did not pay any attention to my explanations."
Vakil Gilani was not only fired from the presidency of the polo federation for private photos taken at a family gathering, she was threatened that the photographs would be published — presumably to ensure she did not take issue with the ministry’s decision, but also to instil fear and use her as an example to other female athletes and would-be officials.
Now it's Paridar's turn
Now Shadi Paridar, Iran's first female chess master, vice president of the Chess Federation, and member of the International Relations of the Iranian National Olympic Committee, has been fired in the same way. This time it’s Mehdi Alinejad, Mohammad Reza Davarzani’s successor as the Deputy for Development of Championship and Sports of the Ministry of Sports and Youth.
Shadi Paridar posted on Instagram several times about the ordeal without directly mentioning why she was fired. She said people were appointed to Iranian Chess Federation official roles rather than elected, and, more boldly, called the managers of the ministry and the federation "disgraceful" and her dismissal a "stain" on the history of the ministry.
This assessment seems fair, given that Shadi Paridar was largely responsible for saving the Iranian Chess Federation from suspension. In November 2020, the World Chess Federation proposed the suspension of the Iranian Chess Federation due to "political interference in sports" and the "prevention of Iranian and Israeli chess players' competitions."
In an online meeting with the World Federation, Shadi Paridar defended the Iranian Federation on behalf of the Iranian delegation.
And yet, following the temporary lifting of the shadow of suspension, the Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs's dismissed Shadi Paridar from her position in the federation for what it described as "revealing hijab” — meaning she had removed her hijab.
In October 2020, Mohsen Samizadeh, the acting secretary of the Chess Federation, told Fars News Agency that if it was true Shadi Paridar has uncovered her head, even if it was when she was outside the country, officials should get involved.
Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, described the Chess Federation as “headline-grabbing“ because of the number of Iranian chess players who had sought asylum as refugees abroad, and claimed that there was evidence of that a federation's presidential candidate had been seen not wearing hijab while abroad.
On October 21, Fars News Agency and media close to Mehdi Alinejad, the Minister for the Development of Championship and Professional Sports for the sports ministry, reported: "Images related to this incident have been provided to Fars News Agency, but they will not be published due to moral reservations."
The candidates for the presidency were Shadi Paridar, Reza Shirinabadi Farahani, Ahmad Gavari, Mohammad Ebrahim Madahi, and Hossein Motiei. So it was clear that the “candidate” the report referred to was Shadi Paridar, the only woman being considered.
Today Paridar is no longer the vice president of the Chess Federation of Iran. Deputy minister Mehdi Alinejad, who has a lengthy record of corruption and has been linked to doping scandals involving Iranian wushu athletes in international competitions, was responsible for Paridar’s elimination.
Many of President Hassan Rouhani’s ministries have been pulled down by controversies and scandals, their reputations tainted, and the Ministry of Sports and Youth is no exception. Golnar Vakil Gilani and Shadi Paridar were dismissed or forced to resign after officials used private photographs to leverage pressure and threaten them. The perpetrators, however, enjoy career promotions, ushered to the higher ranks of the sports ministry and sports federations.