This week it emerged that in her first week at the Ministry of Sports and Youth, senior official Maryam Kazemipour has blocked women’s participation in “bodybuilding-related activities”. Previously the decision was attributed to Mohammad Tabatabaei, director-general of sports for Isfahan province, but a newly-published document showed otherwise.
The directive from Kazemipour ordered the activities of all Iranian women in all fields linked to bodybuilding, including "arm wrestling", "bodybuilding" itself, "powerlifting" and "fitness challenges", to be stopped in all 31 provinces of Iran. It came in the form of a confidential letter addressed to provincial directors of physical education, dated December 28, 2021.
Kazemipour was appointed to the role of Deputy Director of Women’s Sports Development by Minister of Sports Hamid Sajjadi on – December 28. In other words, she issued the command barring women up and down the country from pursuing their vocation on the very same day she assumed office.
Who is Maryam Kazemipour?
Despite being described by Sajjadi as possessing a “valuable background”, Kazemipour has no track record in government. Borna News Agency, itself affiliated with the Ministry of Sports, described her as a researcher and graduate in sports science and physiology from Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences.
Borna added that Kazemipour had previously been the director of women’s sports at the General Staff of the Armed Forces and the women’s director at the Basij Athletes Organization. For three months prior to her appointment, she also served as vice president of the Women's Archery Federation.
For his part, Sajjadi has for more than 10 years been the CEO of Saipa FC, which is owned by the Revolutionary Guards. He has hosted meetings and discussed contracts with the Armed Forces since being appointed Minister of Sports on August 25. But in September he also purported to be a defender of women’s sports, stating: “Women's sports should be self-sufficient in the country... I accept all the concerns and problems of women's sports because I am a sportsman myself.”
The new directive was therefore puzzling, and made all the more mysterious on Sunday, when Borna News Agency hastily deleted from its website a report that quoted Kazemipour thus: “Due to the lack of definitive licenses, the Federation of Bodybuilding and Training has temporarily suspended its women’s activities." The article was online for mere minutes before being pulled.
What Was the Status of Women’s Bodybuilding Before?
In her letter issued to sports directors in each of the provinces, Maryam Kazemipour had also written: "It is illegal to license coaching and refereeing courses until further notice and decision and approval by the competent authorities." The first “competent authority” listed was, again, Hamid Sajjadi.
Since 2013, Khabar Online reports, Iranian women have been allowed to attend “bodybuilding training classes and seminars”. From at least 2016 the Ministry of Sports and Youth also issued licenses for women to train and work in wrist wrestling – a form of arm wrestling in which the participants interlock thumbs – and from late 2020, in powerlifting and fitness challenge.
For years before this, Iranian women had not been given the green-light to work as professional bodybuilders. No specific law prevented them from doing so, but female bodybuilders had been repeatedly arrested over their vocation by the Ministry of Intelligence, and in at least one case informed by interrogators the practice was “forbidden”. Female bodybuilders with Iranian passports were also blocked from travelling to competitions.
In December 2016, Pejman Fozunkhah, head of the Bodybuilding Federation, had told the Young Journalists Club that a woman had been arrested for “the publication of semi-nude photos [showing her muscles] and attending international bodybuilding competitions”. The Ministry had filed a case against her and two other women with the Special Crimes Branch of Iran’s Culture and Media Court. Fozunkhah added at the time: “Due to religious issues, women are not allowed to engage in any activity in bodybuilding and its subgroups.”
Finally in October 2020, the Ministry of Sports and Youth issued an official license for women in the field of powerlifting. Women began their activities in the open and the first public fitness challenge contest involving women took place in September last year.
Also in September, a team of Iranian female wrist wrestlers came third in their section at the Asian Armwrestling Championship in Kazakhstan. They could not have travelled abroad to take part without the express permission of the Ministry of Sports’ Overseas Council. This is a body made up of high-ranking managers, federation presidents and directors at the Ministry and the Olympic Committee. The December 28 about-turn has therefore come as a shock to many, and raises concerns about whether other women athletes will soon also be pushed underground.