Iranian women are finding their place in society through sports

Rashmi Kaslikar

February 1st, 2017

Image: Heat Street | Time | Naharnet

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the status of women in Iran changed considerably. According to the new law, wearing a veil had become mandatory. Under the national and religious norms, women had to compulsorily cover their heads and bodies in the presence of men in public places. This had also led to a ban on women’s sports competitions in the presence of men. However, sports were still considered to play an important role in a woman’s life, and so the involvement of women in physical activities was encouraged. But only on one condition – their clothing had to meet the Islamic requirements, covering the head, arms and legs. Authorities allowed women athletes to compete only in a hijab.

Despite failed efforts to change the existing stringent laws, the Iranian women did not give up on pursuing their dreams and interests. They knew that the only way ahead was getting accustomed to sporting activities that conformed with the religious beliefs. They had to respect the rules and beliefs of Islam.

Designers also started considering making comfortable and religious appropriate sports clothes for women. They created the sports hijab which was made from sweat absorbent material and helped the athletes perform better and without any obstruction. “Since we began to work with such clothing, we have got used to it. Personally, I don’t have any problem with that, and I don’t think it is stopping me from progressing”, says Homa Hosseini, the first ever female Iranian Olympic (Beijing 2008) rower.

“The first thing that struck us during international competitions was the looks we got from others. They were saying to each other, ‘How are they even able to play with their veil?’ ‘Doesn’t it make them hot or bother them?’” said Bita Mohsenizadeh, a member of the Iranian women’s National Hockey team who dreams of competing in the Olympics. “The truth is that we are here to play. To assert our rights. To show that we can play no matter what”, she added.


The girls are pushing the boundaries in their country

Through the first international competitions, they have shown that wearing the veil doesn’t restrain or prevent them from succeeding. They give hope to other girls in the country, and they also encourage them to play sports and lead a healthier life with positive energy and a strong morale”, says Kaveh Sedghi, the Director of the Iranian women’s National Hockey team.

In October 2016, the Russian women’s mini football (futsal) team had a friendly game against their Iranian counterparts in Tehran. The Iranians had asked if they could wear hijabs during the game to promote mini football in the country. The team fully embraced this traditional Muslim attire and agreed to wear it.

Here’s what the Russian coach, Yevgeniy Kuzmin, had to say on this, “We have great relations with the Iranian team, so we decided to play along. They provided us with the outfits. We could have said ‘no’, and it would have been alright. Our players had no problem with wearing hijabs during the game; it was interesting for them to experience what Iranian women were feeling when playing in such garb all the time. It is obvious that it was unusual for the Russian girls. However, that fact did not have any impact on the game. Some of the girls even decided to take the hijabs with them back home.”


The split opinion on the hijab in the world

The Women’s World Chess Championship 2017 is an upcoming 64-player knock-out tournament, to decide the women’s world chess champion. It will involve players from 26 countries, including three from Iran, with the winner receiving US$ 60,000 (€54,250).  It is the first time the country will be hosting a major event for women. The organisational rights to the event were awarded to Iran. Iran was chosen as the host country during the FIDE Congress in Baku in September 2016, after no other country bid to host. This tournament is however stuck in the mud.

All the 64 players, as well as visitors, have been compulsorily asked to wear the hijab by the Iranian authorities. Failure of which would result in fine or even a prison term.

Not all participants of the tournament are supporting this rule. The Georgian-American chess champion, Nazí Paikidze, has strictly elected to boycott the event as a protest against the inequality towards women in Iran. “I think it’s unacceptable to host a women’s World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens,” she says.

She has also started a petition on Change.org demanding the World Chess Federation to reconsider Iran as the host country. “These issues reach far beyond the chess world,” the petition says. “While there has been social progress in Iran, women’s rights remain severely restricted. This is more than one event; it is a fight for women’s rights.” She also claimed that she would rather risk her career than wear a hijab. Her petition has been backed by many.

On the contrary, many Iranian sportswomen find this tournament the most important event for them to date. They are of the opinion that a boycott is not the way to fight this oppression. Not travelling to Iran will not help these women fulfil their dreams. They believe that players have the right to oppose wearing a hijab but boycotting the event should not be considered as it would be a setback for female sport in Iran.

“I can’t judge the people who find it difficult to wear a veil. That’s just how they feel. On the other hand, those who said that boycotting the event will help the Iranian women are wrong in my opinion. For the first time an international competition is taking place here, and that would encourage Iranian players. So in fact not participating in this Championship will have an opposite effect”, says Sara Khademalshareih, Iranian chess champion who holds the titles of International Master and Woman Grandmaster.


Like most other leisure activities in Iran, women’s sports have their limitations

“These games are important for women in Iran; it’s an opportunity for us to show our strength”, noted Mitra Hejazipour, a woman grandmaster (WGM) and the 2015 Asian continental women’s champion. “The hijab is not oppression. We are used to it, and it’s one of Iran’s laws, and we accept it”, she added.

Indian champions in women’s chess Humpy Koneru and Harika Dronavalli are in full support of the tournament. They have also played matches in Iran before. “For a few days it was a bit awkward to play with the headscarf, but slowly I got used to it. I feel we need to respect their culture and customs,” says Humpy.  Harika also spoke about her experience of playing while wearing the hijab, “Of course, it is not comfortable to play with headscarves but for me most important is the World Championship so wherever it happens, it doesn’t concern me much.”

The head of Iran’s chess federation, Mehrdad Pahlevanzadeh, said that petitions for a boycott are unfair and unacceptable. It’s not like this is the first time a women’s tournament is being held in Iran. The head of the World Chess Federation (FIDE), Geoffrey Borg, supported the event saying that chess players should respect the laws of countries. The Championship will be held from February 10 to March 5.

There is no point in isolating Iran. Because of the need to abide by the rule of wearing a veil in their religion, the Iranian women have accepted it. Religious requirements have not hindered them from gaining expertise in different sports. They have come a long way. What they need today are the world’s cooperation and more support.

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