For women in sports, overcoming social stigma is as much a part of the game as any technique to be mastered.
“She who lifts weights is no woman,” said veteran Iranian actor Dariush Arjmand in a televised interview in May. To Arjmand, female weightlifters are unworthy of motherhood and can not be considered real women as their weightlifting puts their femininity in danger.
In a matter of weeks following the interview, history was made—almost as if on a mission to disprove the naysayers, 16-year-old Yekta Jamali won Iran’s first medal in women’s weightlifting championships. It was her first time competing in an international sports event.
Arjmand’s comments did not go unchallenged. Ladan Tabatabaii, herself a veteran actress in Iran’s film industry who immigrated to the U.S. five years ago, expressed her indignation on an Instagram live stream on May 15: “How do you give yourself the authority to decide what a woman can or cannot do? If weightlifting affects women’s bodies, does it not also affect the men’s?” She lamented how the female TV host conducting the interview refused to confront him but instead chose to laugh along.
The discrimination female athletes face in the Iranian region is longstanding. This past February, Samira Zargari, head coach of Iran’s women’s ski team, was barred from leaving the country to accompany her team to alpine ski championships in Italy. The reason? She did not have her husband’s permission to travel.
Hers is just the latest amongst a slew of high-profile female athletes in Iran denied the freedom to travel to compete in sporting events.
Alongside female athletes, female sports fans also become victims. While Iran has a thriving football culture, women have been banned from attending matches for the last 40 years. Sahar Khodayari was such a diehard fan of one of the teams that she would dress as a boy to obtain entrance to stadiums to see their matches up close. In 2019, she received a jail sentence for violating the law forbidding female spectators from entering stadiums. She set herself on fire in protest and died of the burns a week after.
Oppressive laws and regulations force top female athletes to discontinue their professional lives in Iran. Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, defected last year in protest of the mistreatment of female athletes. Now living in Germany, she plans to compete in this year’s Olympics under a white flag. Chess champion Dorsa Derakhshani, barred from competing in tournaments after refusing to wear the obligatory hijab, left her homeland in 2017 for the United States, whose team she now represents.
During my last stay in Iran, I would go swimming regularly at a university pool open to community members. Many of the pool personnel were female athletes themselves. They exuded confidence and camaraderie and tried to make my swimming sessions as pleasant as possible. To enter the university grounds, however, I had to pass through an entrance manned by a security guard. All went smoothly until one day, as I brought the car to a halt behind the entrance, my headscarf happened to fall to my shoulders. Suddenly a woman covered in a chador came out from behind the checkpoint and, gesturing to the guard to not allow me to enter, threatened to call the police on me if I didn’t pull my scarf back on and turn back immediately. Needless to say, I did not resume my swimming after the incident.
Playing volleyball in my high school years in the north of Iran, I have fond memories of traveling with teams by bus to regional championships, attending practice in stadiums, and cheering at games. My teammates were among the most fun-loving and talented young women I’d ever met. Maryam, one of our coaches, would have us at her house and take us on outings regularly—almost as if we were her younger sisters. She once recounted how her older brother had inspired her to become a volleyball player, instructing the techniques and including her in games with his friends, which gave her the confidence to excel in the sport. She considered it her duty to instill that same confidence in her own students.
Yet certain social norms would sap that confidence. I remember being advised not to immerse myself in the athletic community—young female athletes could be targets of gossip and controversy for no good reason. Not all of us had the kind of support Maryam did, as some guys I knew scoffed at women’s sports. What got under my skin was not being able to go out for daily runs or jogs in the neighborhood as it was simply unacceptable for women. For any sportswoman, it seemed, overcoming social stigma was as much a part of the game as any technique to master in sport.
Arjmand’s sexist comments are only the latest manifestation of perpetuating that stigma, one which compels us into forgoing our athletic persona to gain acceptance as women, and one which is seldom addressed within our culture, in our media, within families, or in gatherings.
Challenging the status quo always comes with a cost. As with Alizadeh and Derakhshani, the most promising female athletes have had to continue their professions elsewhere, and influencers of Tabatabai’s caliber could only voice their opinions upon emigrating. Those who are just starting out, such as Jamali, expose themselves to all sorts of stereotypes and are likely to defect somewhere down the road.
But the road cannot end there. At the cross point between stigma and stereotype, sportswomen are soaring on new paths and heralding a new era where lifting weights will no longer mean bearing burdens.