Saudi and Iranian women fight for right to compete

London Olympic Games seen as breakthrough for female athletes, but many hurdles remain.

Iranian women play rugby 390 (photo credit: Faramazh Beheshti)
Iranian women play rugby 390
(photo credit: Faramazh Beheshti)
The 2012 Summer Olympics have been unofficially dubbed the Year of the Woman since for the first time ever, every country taking part – even Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar – has fielded a female athlete.
Yet human rights and women’s groups said many hurdles still remain, and called on the International Olympic Committee on Thursday to work harder to end discrimination against women’s sports in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In an open letter to International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, Australian- born British human rights activist Peter Tatchell slammed the Olympic movement for tolerating Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s discriminatory treatment of sportswomen.
“Saudi Arabia’s government blocks women from participating in sport. Many private women’s gyms have been closed down and girls are banned from taking part in sport at school,” Tatchell wrote, noting that neither of the two Saudi women athletes at the Olympics – Wujdan Shahrkhani in judo and Sarah Attar in track and field – live or train in Saudi Arabia.
The remarks come after Rogge hailed as a “major boost for gender equality” decisions by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei to send female athletes to the games for the first time.
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This week, the committee also confirmed that it would allow Saudi judoka Shahrkhani to compete wearing a hijab, after her father told the country’s Al- Watan newspaper that she would quit if she had to unveil.
US-based group Human Rights Watch has also voiced criticisms about Saudi Arabia’s record on women’s sports.
In a recent report, HRW criticized the Saudi Sports Ministry for banning a women’s Ramadan sports tournament featuring volleyball, soccer and basketball, even though the organizers promised to comply with Shari’a law, including obtaining permission from the women’s male “guardians.”
Saudi’s religious leaders have frequently expressed opposition to women’s participation in sport. Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah Aal as-Shaikh told the country’s Saudi’s al- Iqtisadeh TV channel recently that women had no need to play sports, and that their role was to be housewives.
The negative attitude toward Saudi women in sports spilled over onto social media this week, after Saudi Twitter user Sultan al-Halali began a campaign against Olympians Shahrkhani and Attar by using the site to encourage others to criticize the women, by posting tweets with an Arabic hashtag (keyword) that translates as “Olympic whores.”
The negative campaign caused a backlash, with many using the hashtag to post supportive comments. On Thursday, London-based Saudi Twitter user Hayathem al-Hasher slammed the “whores” campaign as defamatory.
In the light of the difficulties that Saudi’s women athletes must overcome to play sport, it is unsurprising that even HRW has admitted that the 2012 Summer Games is a positive first step for Saudi women.
In many ways, the London Olympics also represent a great leap forward for Iranian sportswomen.
This year, the Islamic Republic fielded eight women, the largest number of female athletes ever to represent Iran in the Olympics.
Even though Iran has competed in every Olympics since 1948 (except the 1980 and 1984 games), it was not until 1996 that an Iranian woman – rifle shooter Lara Fariman – qualified to participate.
Competing this year are shot putter Leyla Rajabi, rower Soulmaz Abbasiazad, shooters Mahlagha Jam-Bozorg and Elaheh Ahmadi (whose father was also a shooter), archer Zahra Dehghanabanavi, Taekwondo martial artist Sousan Hajipourgoli, table tennis player Neda Shahsavari and canoe sprinter Arezou Hakimi Moghaddam.
Abbasiazad reached the semifinals of the Women’s Single Sculls, but was knocked out on Thursday, placing sixth in her group.
All eight of Iran’s female Olympians qualified for the games, even though the regime has stepped up its efforts to make it harder for women to participate in sport since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election in 2005.
The many restrictions placed on Iranian women include a ban on male coaches and trainers, and access to only very limited training facilities.
As Maryam, a women’s soccer referee from Iran, told BBC Persian in a recent interview: “One of the problems in Iran is that male coaches cannot attend women’s exercises. In every other country and in all the games, there are men coaches...
but unfortunately we don’t get that in Iran.”
Like Saudi women, Iranian women must also play sport wearing Islamic dress, including a hijab, a dress code that resulted in the Iranian women’s soccer team being banned from Olympic participation.
Iranian women even face difficulties in watching sports, as they are prohibited from entering stadiums where there are men present.
Smallmedia, a UK-based nonprofit that examines culture, censorship and technology in Iran, and which has profiled the eight Iranian women athletes, noted that Olympic Taekwondo participant Hajipour – who told the group that she wants to be the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal – has trained in South Korea and that table tennis player Shahsavari trained with Hungarians in Tehran.
On a positive note, Shahsavari said that because of her success in the sport, Iran’s Table Tennis Federation has started to give more attention to female players, Smallmedia said.
As Shahsavari’s enthusiasm – and that of her fellow Olympians – indicates, despite the difficulties they face, Iranian women are determined to play and compete in a wide variety of sports, including soccer, polo and even rugby, which is a controversial sport even for women in the West.
In a 2011 documentary by Iranian-New Zealand filmmaker Faramarz Beheshti, Salam Rugby, which explores the difficulties faced by Iran’s female rugby players, one woman describes the government’s efforts to thwart the sport as “mental torture.”
Significantly, it has been Iranian women themselves who have fought for greater sporting inclusion.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women’s sport was completely shut down until 1990, when Faezeh Hashemi-Rafsanjani, daughter of then-Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and the “Spiritual Mother” of Iranian female athletes, campaigned to bring it back.
It was Hashemi-Rafsanjani, in her former role as vice president of Iran’s Olympic Committee, who later successfully campaigned for Iranian and other Muslim women to compete in the Games wearing Islamic dress.
Several of the Iranian women competing at the Olympics have also spoken of their determination to succeed at their sport.
In an interview with the Aftab news website, rifle shooter Jambozorg said that while she always emphasized hard work, competing in the Olympics had been a dream for her.
“Now that dream has come true,” she said.
And while Jambozorg admitted that Iran has not experienced great Olympic success, and that the country wanted to do better in future, she felt that competing was the most important thing.
“For me, I’ll be satisfied by giving my best performance,” she said.