Women

'I Learned Freedom in the UK': Iranian-Born Wrestler Melika Balali on Taking a Stand Against Forced Hijab

June 30, 2022
Payam Younesipour
3 min read
Melika Balali used her win at the British Senior Wrestling Championships on Sunday to call attention to Iran's mandatory hijab policy
Melika Balali used her win at the British Senior Wrestling Championships on Sunday to call attention to Iran's mandatory hijab policy
Balali, 22, emigrated in 2019 and is a member of the Scottish national freestyle wrestling team
Balali, 22, emigrated in 2019 and is a member of the Scottish national freestyle wrestling team
"For my mother it was a disgrace for a woman to walk onto a mat in a singlet. If a man came on in the same gear, it was a sign of chivalry"
"For my mother it was a disgrace for a woman to walk onto a mat in a singlet. If a man came on in the same gear, it was a sign of chivalry"
Balali met her husband, the filmmaker Javad Daraei, at university in Tehran. He supported her pursuing her ambitions in sports
Balali met her husband, the filmmaker Javad Daraei, at university in Tehran. He supported her pursuing her ambitions in sports
The pair have collaborated on films together and attended festivals across the US
The pair have collaborated on films together and attended festivals across the US

The Iranian-born wrestler Melika Balali won gold at the women’s British Senior Wrestling Championship last weekend. On the podium in Manchester, the 22-year-old, a member of the Scottish national freestyle wrestling team, held up a poster that read: “STOP forced hijab. I have the right to be a wrestler.”

Balali is more than a top sports practitioner with two gold medals under her belt from Iran and the UK. Born in Shahrekord, Charmahal and Bakhtiari province, she is a painter, cartoonist, set designer, animator, and women’s rights activist. In the aftermath of the win, she spoke to IranWire about her journey so far.

“I am the first child of a family of four,” she said. “My family, my parents, are religious and never supported my sporting activities, but the thought of wrestling never left my mind. Despite the fact that we have one of the largest zurkhanehs [ancient wrestling training grounds] in the country in Shahrekord, women have never gone there. Women’s share in it is zero.”

Balali chose to study animation in high school and was accepted into Soore University, moving with her family to Karaj, close to Tehran. It was there that she met her husband, the film director Javad Daraei. “Before my marriage I never had a chance to play sports,” she said. “Getting to know him helped me, both in art and animation, and in wrestling. I was lucky he stood by me so I could achieve my dream.”

In 2018, in the last year of his leadership of the Iranian Wrestling Federation, the world champion and Olympian Rasoul Khadem established a women’s classic freestyle team for Iran. For Balali, this was the greatest gift he could have bestowed. She honed her skills under the first ladies’ coaches, top practitioners Mona Mirzaei and Kajal Kaveh Tabar.

She won the gold at her first proper fight, in the Alborz freestyle wrestling competition. “I now ask myself, what share do those girls I competed with have in those blue and orange mats today? Have their ambitions been fulfilled?”

Even for Balali, it was a close thing: “My mother was against me wrestling. From her and my family's point of view, I ought to be becoming a housewife and having children. For my mother it was a disgrace for a woman to walk onto a mat in a singlet. If a man came on in the same gear, it was a sign of chivalry and might."

Between fights, she collaborated with her husband on some of his films, managing sets and creating publicity. Her poster design for his award-winning short film Hadd (Limit, 2017) was seen in more than 10 countries across the globe. At the Made in Arkansas Film Festival, she said, the event strapline made an impression on her: “It was ‘Believe in your dreams’. That caught my eye, and I’ve been doing it more seriously ever since then.”

Both she and her husband won scholarships at a university in Pennsylvania in 2019. Due to Covid-19 she struggled to train over those two years, but kept practising alone, without a gym. “We came to Britain a year ago,” she said. “The second day we entered the country, I went to a wrestling arena. I cried for hours. I couldn’t believe the gap between the rights of women in my country and women in a European country was so vast."

Living in the UK, Balali said, has given her the opportunity to understand the meaning of freedom, both physically and mentally. "I’d emigrated, but my mind was full of repression. I’d lived under the shadow of religious and patriarchal ideologies, and at that age, I had to find myself."

Of the sign she raised on the podium in Manchester, she said: “Social issues have been and remain my concern. I write poetry and paint for women’s liberation. Maybe the seat I’m in now is far away from that of hte people of Iran, but I believe that one day, all Iranian women will take the same seat. I wanted to be more than just myself when I got on the podium, and to carry a message over my head. I wanted to ask a question: ‘Why shouldn’t we have an equal share?’.”

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