Iranian women and sport: every obstacle an opportunity

In their latest effort to deliver on President Hassan Rouhani’s pre-election pledge to relax some social restrictions imposed on Iranians by previous governments, members of his cabinet recently announced plans to permit women to attend certain types of sporting matches. While since contested by conservatives, the announcement brought national attention to Iranian women’s interest and participation in athletic events, which has burgeoned despite decades of strict gender segregation policies.
Earlier this month, deputy sports and youth minister Abdolhamid Ahmad called for a more “family-oriented” atmosphere at stadiums that would allow women to attend most major sporting events. Subsequently, Shahindakht Molavardi, the deputy minister for women’s and family affairs, said the government had “confirmed” it would allow women to attend volleyball matches, but added the plans had not yet been “approved.”

As with previous attempts to limit gender segregation and compulsory veiling, the announcements met with criticism from prominent clerics and conservative state-affiliated bodies. Mohammadreza Naghdi, head of the ideological Basij militia, said he wouldn’t accept such “unrestrained” western tendencies, adding it was not “virtuous” for women to visit sports stadiums.

“Although the policy is still in its planning stages, it’s already met with staunch opposition and we’re about to see even more posturing by conservatives,” grumbled Roya, one of many local athletic coaches who believe that enabling women to attend sporting matches would represent a shift in government policy towards female athletics, which despite broad popularity remain underfunded.

Attention to women’s sports began during the presidency of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who appointed his daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, head of the Women’s Sports Organization and deputy chair of Iran’s Olympics Committee. During this period, several sports facilities were allocated for women, and the first games for women of the Islamic countries were held in Tehran. Although the games failed to catch on in the long term, they helped generate an unprecedented interest in women’s competitive sports.

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The change in traditionally forbidding attitudes toward female athletics was paradoxically made possible by gender segregation and strict veiling policies, which undermined conservative families’ resistance to participation in organized sports. Parents from various social circles began sending their children to play tennis or participate in judo, karate, taekwondo, shooting, mountain climbing, and rowing.

Iranian women and sport: every obstacle an opportunity
Iranian women and sport: every obstacle an opportunity

Even during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s conservative presidency, when investment in female athletics lost it consistency, an unprecedented number of women participated in the Asian games. For certain types of sports, the number of sporting arenas tripled.

Today, women’s competitions are held in countrywide leagues in soccer, basketball, volleyball, squash, kabaddi, and close to 200 other sports including in all varieties of martial arts and race car driving. In 2013, authorities even permitted a hip-hop dance competition.

“If you come to the sports’ arena on the day women from across the country are competing, you will be entering a women’s world which is quite astounding,” said a karate coach who instructs over a hundred female students each week in two different areas of Tehran.

Like most other leisure activities in Iran, women’s sports have their limitations. Economic difficulties have slashed budgets, and high-ranking clerics often voice their disdain for the growing trend. In 2013, a televised broadcast of a women’s martial arts competition raised the ire of religious authorities like Ayatollah Abdollah Javadi Amoli, who said, “A woman’s and girl’s virtue is not in extending her leg to kick someone and bring us medals.”

Such comments elicit a variety of reactions. Shahab Esfandiari, a university professor, chastised high-ranking clerics for thinking that all women are like their own mothers, spouses, and daughters. “The worst kinds of cultural policy at the national level are the ones which prescribe based on the needs of ourselves or people around us,” she said.