Why Thousands of Iranian Women Are Training to Be Ninjas

In a society that treats them like children, sports -- and especially martial arts -- offer a way to express strength and independence.

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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.

But the Iranian regime's 33-year quest to make Iranian women weak and helpless, to force them into child-like subservience, has failed. Though we in the West often perceive them this way because the hijab and the chador are all we see on the surface, women in Iran are stronger collectively and more assertive individually than the Islamic Republic would have us believe. After all, its laws and restrictions would not be necessary if Iranian women were as powerless as the religious leaders hoped. It is precisely because Iranian women do wield power in their society and homes that the country's reactionary leaders feel compelled to imbalance the playing field, to pass laws taking that dignity and influence away. And one of the places where their failure becomes clear is in the surprisingly vibrant arena of women's sports.

The first two Muslim women to summit Mount Everest, in 2005, were both Iranian; a dentist and graphic designer whose expedition had suffered unusually bad conditions and serious injuries. In 2004, a group of Iranian women started a rugby league that, by 2006, had 1,000 members. "Some of my male colleagues were skeptical but we proved them wrong," one of the earliest players said in a documentary about the harassment and intimidation her team endured. In 2007, when Iranian women began qualifying for the Olympics, an official publicly warned, "severe punishment will be meted out to those who do not follow Islamic rules during sporting competitions." Only three made it to Beijing; Sara Khoshjamal Fekri, the first-ever Iranian women to qualify in taekwondo, rose to the quarter-finals. International women's competitions in wushu, a Chinese form of exhibition martial arts, routinely see Iranian champions. Though many women play soccer, often competitively, the national women's team is held back by under-funding, poor equipment, and gender restrictions that forbid male coaches or trainers.

The state has been doing its best to restrict women from sports, sometimes by simple harassment and sometimes bureaucratically, such as with a 2006 rule that merged men and women's sports administrations, thus forcing most women lower in the organization. It's not hard to see why, beyond the simple habit of repression, they would do this. Athletics can be a means of empowerment, organization, and of asserting self-worth. Women expressed these same traits in 2009, when they played a central and active role in that year's Green Revolution against the regime.

Mastering a Japanese martial art, especially one popularly associated with fearless lone warriors, might hold a certain appeal to Iranian women who have watched their government struggle for decades to weaken them. Learning nunjutsu is not going to undo Iran's medieval gender restrictions, of course, but it sends a message about their futility.