Women

'Private Pictures' and Disappeared Bonuses Blighting Top Female Athletes' Careers

March 14, 2022
Payam Younesipour
7 min read
Golnar Vakil Gilani, the former president of Iran’s Polo Federation, was abruptly fired in 2017 for reasons she called "unsportsmanlike, even immoral"
Golnar Vakil Gilani, the former president of Iran’s Polo Federation, was abruptly fired in 2017 for reasons she called "unsportsmanlike, even immoral"
It later emerged that Mohammad Reza Davarzani, an ex-IRGC commander and deputy sports minister, had threatened to publish photos of her without hijab on Telegram
It later emerged that Mohammad Reza Davarzani, an ex-IRGC commander and deputy sports minister, had threatened to publish photos of her without hijab on Telegram
Shadi Paridar, Iran's first female chess master and vice president of the Chess Federation, was also fired over so-called 'private photos'
Shadi Paridar, Iran's first female chess master and vice president of the Chess Federation, was also fired over so-called 'private photos'
Female boxer Sadaf Khadem was advised to seek asylum in France after she stepped into the ring not wearing a veil
Female boxer Sadaf Khadem was advised to seek asylum in France after she stepped into the ring not wearing a veil
Taekwondo practitioner Kimia Alizadeh left Iran in January 2020 over what she called "the regime's abuse of female athletes"
Taekwondo practitioner Kimia Alizadeh left Iran in January 2020 over what she called "the regime's abuse of female athletes"

On September 24, 2017, Golnar Vakil Gilani, the then-37-year-old president of Iran’s Polo Federation and the youngest person to hold down such a role in history, was fired after 17 months in the job. Within 24 hours rumors began to circulate that she was being pressured, and the sacking had little to do with sports. Later, Gilani herself told the news website Entekhab that the decision had been “unsportsmanlike, even immoral”.

“Some cowardly person has published my private photos and I know who did it, but I don’t want to name him," she then told Mizan News Agency. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, where hijab is mandatory, pictures of unveiled women are referred to as “private photos”; their going public can spell the end of a career, or worse.

Finally, in an interview with Etemad newspaper, Vakil Gilani revealed that it was Mohammad Reza Davarzani, an ex-commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth at the time, who had warned her that if she did not resign, he would publish her private photos on Telegram.

"He called me to his office several times,” she said. “Each time, he said that if I didn’t resign the photos would be published. He actually threatened me, and asked why I wasn’t wearing hijab in the photos. I said they were entirely personal and had been sent to him without my permission. He paid no attention.”

Over 40 years, the lights have gone out one by one in the Iranian women’s sporting arena. Not only were stadium doors closed to women, but non-professional women were banned from disciplines like gymnastics, boxing, swimming, skating and skiing. At the same time, female athletes have endured a litany of abuses by male managers while the international financial aid specifically meant for them vanished into thin air.

“They Took Me Wherever They Wanted”

In February 2021, 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, was fired in the same manner as Vakil Gilani. This time it was Mehdi Alinejad, Mohammad Reza Davarzani’s successor as the Ministry of Sports’s Deputy for Development of Championship, who threatened to publish Paridar’s private photos. Following the exchange, a furious Paridar posted a story on Instagram to call Iran’s sporting managers "disgraceful", and her own dismissal a "stain" on the ministry’s history.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei praises the enforcement of hijab on women athletes at each and every sports-related appearance he makes. “Our women athletes have proved that Islamic hijab is not an obstacle to progress,” he told an assembled group of Olympians and Paralympians in September 2021. “This hijab of yours has also inspired the women of other Muslim countries. I have heard that over the years, women athletes from more than 10 Muslim countries have appeared in the international arena with hijab.”

Most Iranian female athletes not only do not share Khamenei’s view of hijab. Many have spoken bitterly on the subject after leaving Iran for good. One of them was taekwondo practitioner Kimia Alizadeh, who sought asylum in Germany in January 2020. In a message to Khamenei on Instagram, Alizadeh wrote: “I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran whom the authorities have played with as they liked for years. They took me wherever they wanted. I wore everything they said. I repeated every sentence they ordered. They detained me whenever they saw fit. They attributed my medals to obligatory hijab, and to their own management. I was not important to them. None of us are important to them; we are tools. These medals are important for them, to exploit us for politics at any price they set. But at the same time they say, in an act of degradation: the virtue of a woman is that she does not extend her legs.”

“My life was dominated by forced hijab,” wrote female chess grandmaster Mitra Hejazipour in January 2020 after she, too, had left Iran. “Forced hijab is a clear symbol of an ideology that considers women the second sex.”

In April 2019 Sadaf Khadem, an Iranian woman boxer who had stepped unveiled into the ring in France, asked for and was granted asylum in that country. Mahyar Monshipour, an ex-Iranian boxing champion and a member of the French women’s club that coached Khademi, later said: “We were informed that if Sadaf Khatam returned to Iran she would be in trouble. After that, we decided she shouldn’t go back.”

 

Blackmail and Abuse

The Supreme Leader and other high-level officials have always presented mandatory hijab as a measure with which to keep female athletes safe. Not only are they no safer than their fellow sportswomen from other countries, but several Iranian athletes have gone public about experiences of sexual assault and abuse.

In September 2021, a number of women and coaches joined IranWire’s "Sports Room” event on Clubhouse. Rosita Aemeh-Doost, a former national table tennis player, told those present: “At the national team’s girls’ camp, an employee sent pornographic videos to the female athletes. The girls there were aged 16 and up.

“Sadly whenever women spoke out about rape or assault, we were pilloried. Some said we were making it up; others said we should leave.”

Wrestler and wrestling coach Shirin Shirzad added: "I suspect all Iranian female national team players, in all sports, have experienced sexual harassment at least once. I saw this every day, every hour.

"One of our coaches, who was married, told me one of the most famous [male] coaches at the wrestling federation kept calling her at 4am. She told me several times that his calls were disrupting her life. I told the president of the federation, I told the managers at the time. But I was the one who was reprimanded."

“Men at the football federation expect sex from you to begin even the most basic tasks,” said Shiva Amini, a former member of the women's national futsal team. Separately, she added: “There was an official at the federation who abused LGBT+ girls. He took iPhones and jewelry from them as bribes for him to not reveal information about their relationships, or make them go to medical centers for gender tests."

Elham Nikpay, a former swimming and lifeguard instructor who trained Iranian disabled people for years, talked about sexual assaults on disabled girls. “The head of the Fars Province Board for the Disabled, a Mr. Mohammad Hossein Golriz Khatami, forced the young people to work for him when he held parties and repeatedly sexually assaulted them.”

 

FIFA’s Missing Half-Million

In June 2020, FIFA announced it had agreed on a $1.5 billion relief plan to help member federations to deal with the impact of Covid-19. The plan, unanimously backed by FIFA’s Council, allowed for a “universal solidarity grant” of US$1million to each country’s national footballing body, with an additional $500,000 earmarked specifically for women’s football.

Iran Football Federation received the designated $500,000 for women and claimed that it had used the amount to pay bonuses owed to female football and futsal players, and on camps for the women’s national teams. But not long after that, female futsal players involved in Iran’s win at the 2018 Women's Futsal Asian Cup protested that they had not received the bonuses due to them: about $22,000 each. Leila Sufizadeh, the Football Federation’s Deputy for Women, responded: “After the Asian championship, each of these players gained a high social standing and made a lot of money through commercials. What’s more important, money or social standing?”

In the end, it took three years for the futsal players to be paid – in Iranian currency, without adjustment for inflation or the steep fall in the value of the rial. What each player actually received was 19.8 million tomans, or $725 at the then-exchange rate. The Federation also deducted 10 percent tax from the bonuses. Where that $500,000 from FIFA really went, no-one knows.

 

Related coverage:

Threats to Publish Private Photos Force Female Sports Official Out

Women Speak Out About Violence in Sport

Top Female Referee Banned for Scholarly Research

Iranian Female Taekwondo Champion Granted Refugee Status by Germany

Iranian Female Referee in Italy Speaks Out About Her Dreams and the Obstacles She Faces

Faced with Repression at Home, Iranian Athletes Choose to Migrate

Iranian Chess Champion: I was Oppressed by Hijab Laws

The Real Cost of Censoring Female Athletes in Iran

Forced Hijab for Female Athletes in Iran

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