The Bravery of Iran's Female Athletes

What women like Faezeh Hashemi face in Iran and why their struggle matters

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Iranian women's national soccer team line up before a qualifying match against Jordan / Reuters

In recent weeks, the Iranian regime has cracked down on journalists and activists in the lead-up to parliamentary elections in early March 2012. In another instance of the regime eating its own, Faezeh Hashemi, the prominent daughter of former president Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, was one of the activists targeted. On January 3, she was sentenced to 6 months in prison for spreading propaganda about the Islamic Republic. The charge is related to comments she made in April 2011 to an opposition news source accusing the regime of being run by "thugs and hooligans." Hashemi herself was harassed by security forces on several occasions. As part of her sentence, she has been banned from any political or organizational activity for 5 years. She can appeal, but clearly the regime wants to keep her - and by extension her father - quiet in the run-up to the March elections. She's a de facto hostage.

An interesting Iranian film, Salam Rugby (2010), documents Hashemi's harassment and shows an attack against her in one of its final scenes. (You can watch a YouTube clip in Persian of the the incident here.) As its name implies, Salam Rugby follows the growth of women's rugby teams in Iran. Rugby is a controversial sport for women in many countries because it challenges traditional ideas about women's physical capabilities, mental toughness, and behavioral norms. In Iran, it clearly pushes the boundaries too far for the mullahs, and they do their best to thwart the sport. One of the female players in the film says that all the hurdles put in front of them are just another form of "mental torture." One coach was removed from his position after being threatened with legal action and charges of prostitution were he to come within 10 meters of his female players. Another team was only able to play two competitive matches over seven years.

Interviews with Hashemi are woven throughout the film. In many ways, she is the godmother of women's sports in the Islamic Republic. An athlete herself, in the early 1990s she championed the right of women to have access to sports facilities and competition as the head of the Islamic Women's Sports Federation. In that role, she increased access for women to swimming pools and tennis courts and golf driving ranges. She established bike paths for women in Tehran's parks, despite that fact that conservatives are particularly bothered by the idea of women riding bicycles. She also paved the way for women to participate in international competition at the highest levels. Still, women's sports - not just rugby - remain controversial in Iran. In the film, Hashemi speaks about how women's sports have suffered since Ahmedinejad was elected in 2005. Women have faced increasing obstacles to their participation including tighter restrictions on their clothing, their coaches and trainers, and more limited access to appropriate facilities, competitive leagues, and matches. Hashemi also describes how, in 2006, men and women's sports administrations were merged into one umbrella organization. This has sidelined women out of positions of significant organizational control, pushed them into administrative positions, and excluded them from decision-making.

Iranian women have also faced growing restrictions at the international level. In June 2011, FIFA banned the Iranian women's soccer team from competing in their final qualifying match in Jordan for the London 2012 Olympics. FIFA deemed that the headscarves the regime makes the women wear break the association's dress code. The Iranian players were devastated, and their coach said this would be the last time they would be allowed to compete outside of Iran. As debate rages over whether FIFA's ruling was fair (it seemed to be as much politically motivated as trying to maintain a dress code), women's sports - and women's rights more broadly - continue to backslide in Iran.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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