In a society that treats them like children, sports -- and especially martial arts -- offer a way to express strength and independence.
Iran's Narges Zadeh strikes Japan's Miruyo Itou in a 2007 international martial arts competition / Reuters
There are 3,500 women in Iran officially registered as training to become ninjas, according to state-run Press TV. The network produced an exceptionally campy video report on the new trend -- yes, that's Michael Bay-style choral music you hear over the slow-motion action scenes -- and some experts dispute whether ninjutsu is even a real martial art. The modern schools of Japan's ancient ninjas didn't emerge until the 1970s, and their classes look a lot like jujutsu plus acrobatics plus throwing stars. But the women in the video appear to take it quite seriously, and that's the point.
Watching the video above, if you look past the tiger-striped costumes and over-the-top production, you can glimpse the self-empowerment of these women in a society that seeks to rob them of power, and perhaps begin to understand why ninjutsu, and athletics in general, have become so popular with Iranian women.
The laws and official practices of Iran place enormous restrictions on its women. They are considered inferior to men in almost all legal matters, especially family laws such as marriage or child custody, and their testimony is officially equal to half of a man's. Clothing restrictions and fierce segregation laws marginalize women in the public sector, making participation in society arduous and painful. Those who try anyway are often singled out for harassment and punishment.