Iranian media outlets have reporrted the abrupt "disappearance" of 17-year-old athlete Yekta Jamali in Greece. Days after she won another silver medal at the Youth World Weightlifting Championships, Jamali apparently did not join her team returning home and her whereabouts remains unknown.
Zahra Pouramin, acting vice president of the Iranian Women's Weightlifting Federation, confirmed the situation to IRNA News Agency on Wednesday. "I don't know what happened," she said, "but Ali Moradi, the president of the federation, is in Greece so that he can bring Yekta Jamali back to Iran. Of course, there have been consultations with Jamali's family on this matter."
Mehr News Agency reported that the Iranian delegation had left Heraklion that afternoon, but Jamali had "left the team camp without informing anyone" and did not resurface to accompany her team members home. Concerns remain for her safety, while many expect she, like dozens of others before her, has taken the opportunity to leave Iran.
Women's Weightlifting in Iran: A Culture of Misogyny
Last year Yekta Jamali won the first world medal in the history of Iranian women's weightlifting at the Youth World Championships in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, earning silver in the 87kg weight class. Not long after that she won bronze at the World Championships in Tashkent.
At the same time as Jamali was making history, others were belittling her vocation. Dariush Arjmand, an actor in Iranian state-produced films and TV, claimed that women's weightlifting was "contrary to motherhood", which he said was a woman's "main duty", and that lifting heavy weights could cause the "destruction" of the breasts, ovaries and womb.
There was no scientific basis to Arjmand's views, but they were representative. Women's weightlifting was banned in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. The prohibition was only lifted in 2018, and then only after the International Weightlifting Federation said it would bar Iranian men from taking part in contests if women were not allowed to do the same.
That same summer, shortly after Yekta Jamali stood on the podium in Tashkent, the hardcore principlist politician Mehdi Kouchakzadeh made the bizarre claim that female athletes inspired criminality among Iranian girls.
Posting a picture of the then 16-year-old Jamali, the warped parliamentarian called her and others "role models" for violent young women, adding: "Why shouldn’t a girl who has such role models not become a cut-throat?"
There were other demoralizing incidents too. Before the start of last year's Tokyo Olympics and at the eleventh hour, Parisa Jahanfekrian, who was poised to become the first Iranian woman Olympic weightlifter, was ruled unfit to travel by Iran's Sports Medicine Federation because she had recently undergone hand surgery.
Jahanfekrian later revealed the Federation had been telling her for months before the games that she had no chance of attending, hence her agreeing to undergo the operation when she did. Despite this, she insisted that she was ready to travel and compete.
Athletes Indifferent to Government Coaxing
Iranian sports bosses are painfully aware of the mass emigration of athletes of all stripes over the past decade, but most choose to misrepresent the reasons why. Massoud Soltanifar, for instance, Minister of Sports under Hassan Rouhani, said athletes' "renunciation of citizenship" tended to come about due to "personal and family problems", adding: "You should not present this small issue as a political and social crisis."
Hamid Sajjadi, Sontalifar's successor under Ebrahim Raisi, has taken a different approach, praising the "resolve" of Iran's remaining athletes and claiming the Ministry of Sports was providing them with "material and spiritual support". Raisi himself previously used one of his first public addresses as president to beseech Iranians in the diaspora to come home.
At least 20 sportsmen and women in different disciplines made headlines when they emigrated in the past three years for political reasons (most either because of forced hijab or being barred by Tehran from competing against Israelis).
Despite Sajjadi and Raisi's promises, more continue to join them. In December 2021 the handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri defected to Spain, and last month the rower Bahman Nasiri moved to Azerbaijan. Just last week IranWire spoke to two young women forging national-level footballing careers for themselves in Turkey instead of Iran because of forced hijab in their country of birth. Now Yekta Jamali has vanished, and many assume she has chosen the same path.