If you are an Iranian female athlete, your unbeatable opponent might turn out to be your uniform. This is what happened in the Third Islamic Solidarity Games held in Indonesia at the end of September 2013. Iran’s women kata team had reached the semi-finals when, overnight, the president of Iran’s Islamic Women’s Sports Federation decided to change their uniforms because it emerged that the back of the athletes’ necks were visible. The Egyptian team complained and the Iranian team was later disqualified.
The federation also prohibited an Iranian female athlete from competing in the Asian rock climbing championship because she planned to attend the competition alone. The federation insisted that she be accompanied.
These are not isolated events; they have happened before and will happen again. It is only Iran that insists that female athletes wear uniforms that conform to Islamic standards in order to participate in competitions. As a result, Iran’s progress in women’s sports has failed to match that of other eastern and Asian countries. However, it’s possible that the right kind of management could in some way compensate for these difficulties, even under a religious government.
In a conversation with Iranwire, a young female athlete who competes wearing the national uniform talked about her experiences and some of the problems she faces. She asked for her identify and the type of sport she competes in to remain anonymous.
Banned from competition
“I was practising hard with my training partner and was totally concentrating on my coach’s instructions because I wanted to score a big victory for the women of my country in the upcoming international competition. I had practised even more hours than usual to streamline my techniques and be well-prepared.
“It was late when the secretary of the federation entered the practice hall. Usually men do not enter a practice hall for women and if they do, they don’t do it unannounced. But this time the secretary entered, said something to our coach and left immediately. I felt that something has happened, but didn’t think it was too serious. I could not concentrate on my practice and became nervous.
“’Forget about it,’ I told my training partner, ’I am not in the mood for practice’, and went to talk to my coach. She didn’t want to say anything, but when I pressed her she said the Foreign Council [of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports] ‘has opposed your participation as the only female member of the team and you should forget about the competition.’”
“I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. I had practised for months and was highly motivated, but they simply decided not to allow me to go. I didn’t want to cry and feel worse. I was to be the only woman on the team going to competition but the Council closed the case by saying ‘you are alone and we thought you would be unprotected’ and prevented me from going to the competition after months of practice.
“I sat in the practice hall for about two hours and just stared into space. My coach and partners who knew how motivated I was tried to comfort me but it was no use. Besides the anger and despair, I had been humiliated. I was upset that for a full year, day and night, I had tried my best to compete in the event but I had not even left the country; I was upset that I had pushed my father hard to go with me to the registry office and give me permission to leave the country.
“I left the hall and wandered around the streets so that maybe I would arrive at home in a better mood, but the rage within me would not allow me me calm down. My parents had found out through friends. They tried to calm me with soothing words. They knew about my hard practice routine; they also knew that many Iranian woman athletes confront the same problem.
“After the bewilderment over the failure to go to the international competition disappeared, I went to the Federation to see if they had at least a convincing reason, but they said it was up to the Foreign Council.
“After that event, I started practicing again and participated in other competitions, but I am always worried that they might again refuse to let me take part in foreign competitions.
“Afterwards I very much wanted to see what kind of individuals make up the Foreign Council. I was curious to find out what kind of people decide which competitions I go to and which ones I do not.
“After some investigations, I found out that this council has nine members: (1) the Sports Ministry’s Deputy for Professional and Championship Sports, (2) the Director of Federation and Clubs Affairs, (3) the Deputy for Support and Resource Development, (4) the Director of International Affairs, (5) the Legal Deputy for Parliamentary Affairs, (6) the General Director for Protection of the Ministry (7) the General Secretary of the Iranian Olympics Committee, (8) the Deputy for Women’s Affairs, and (9) an official from the Foreign Ministry.
“What was interesting was that I found out that no country except Iran has a body similar to the Foreign Council. In other countries, sports federations in different fields themselves decide how and where to participate in competitions. Sometimes in any country – due to war, breakdown of security, sudden regional conflicts and serious political tensions – governments may prevent sports teams from travelling. The Sports Ministry’s Foreign Council, however, has authority over all sports teams, all travel to foreign competitions, under any conditions. One would search in vain to find anything like it anywhere else in the world
“Our problems are not confined to inside the country. An Iranian woman athlete must follow codes in which she might not believe. Outside Iran and in international competitions they don’t treat us well either. International officials and other countries view Iran as a backward country that sends its woman athletes to competition because it has to. This is the worst possible approach.
“Nevertheless, when the athletes from other countries talk to us and get to know us, they understand that even in our own country we are under pressure. They like to learn about our situation, but since the federation officials are next to us, we must limit how much we communicate with them about the discrimination of female athletes or about the fact that we are denied facilities just because we are women.
“In competitions, if we achieve a certain rank, or draw attention to ourselves because of our dress code, we cannot talk to the reporters from the host country. This unfavorable and humiliating image, however, has given us a motive to increase our practice for competitions so people will pay attention to our technical competence rather than the fact that we dress differently.
Women Against Women
“Iranian woman athletes confront a myriad of problems. It’s not only men with certain beliefs that are against women participating in sports. Some women who work in sports can easily match their male counterparts in their disapproval. For example, the Deputy for Women Affairs in the Ministry of Sports, who one assumes would be a supporter of female athletes, is a woman by the name of Marzieh Akbar Abadi. She is more a hindrance than a help.
“Instead of helping women in sports, she generally tries to sabotage female athletes. She is one of the few hold-over deputies from Ahmadinejad’s government and continues to create obstacles for Iranian women when it comes to international competitions.
“The difficulties do not plague only one type of sport or athlete. Neda Shahsavari, a member of the national table tennis team, had the same problem. But the female deputy’s crowning achievement occurred during the finals of the Islamic Solidarity Games in Palembang, Indonesia, attended by 275 karate athletes from 28 countries. On the very first day, the publication of a photograph of the Iranian kata team provoked a strong reaction from Ms Akbar Abadi.
“She contacted the team managers in Indonesia and asked them to cancel further competition by the Iranian team, even though the members of the team were wearing headdresses approved by the international and Asian federations.
“The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has recently appointed a new minister, hired under the administration of Hassan Rouhani. I hope the new minister reviews the conduct of past deputies and saves us from this situation by paying attention to female athletes.