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“Women’s Sports in Iran” from the International Encyclopedia of Women and Sports

(c) Berkshire 2001

Iran is a West Asian nation with a population of 65 million. The country’s official and most widely spoken language is Persian, and Islam is the religion of the vast majority of the population. In traditional Iranian society, sport and physical education were the exclusive domain of men. Given the strict sexual segregation of urban Muslim society, women were not even allowed to enter the traditional Iranian gymnasiums as spectators.

The first to introduce physical education for girls were Christian missionaries in the nineteenth century, who included it in the curricula of their schools. However, since these schools catered mostly to Iran’s non-Muslim minorities, their impact remained limited. The few Muslim women who graduated from these schools were among the first Iranians to demand access to physical education for all women.

After the constitutional revolution of 1906, physical education for women became part of the modernization agenda as a means to help reform and regenerate Iranian society. In the 1930s physical education became compulsory in public girls’ schools, and in 1935 a new state-sponsored Ladies’ Center made the development of physical education programs for women one of its main goals. In 1939 the first national championships were held in track and field and swimming.

Conservatives opposed women’s sports and girls’ physical education, mostly because the wearing of sportswear in view of men violates the traditional Islamic dress code (hijab), which requires that a woman cover her body with the exception of her face, hands, and feet in the presence of unrelated men. However, under the rule of the Pahlavi dynasty, which sought to westernize Iranian life, an ever-increasing number of women belonging to the non-devout upper and middle classes were involved in many sports. Female members of the royal family acted as patrons of the state-sponsored Women’s Sport Organization of Iran.

Many of the Islamic revolutionaries who opposed the Shah’s regime in the 1970s considered women’s sports an aspect of the degenerate western culture that the ruling classes wanted to force on Iran’s Muslim society. After the proponents of an Islamic state consolidated their hold on the country in the wake of the 1979 revolution, most competitive sports for women were stopped in 1981 when the hijab became compulsory. However, a Directorate of Women’s Sports Affairs was established within the national Physical Education Administration in 1980, although it did not become really active until 1985. The Directorate’s mission statement says: “In the Islamic system, sport serves as one of the best means of helping women better to fulfill their holy duties of motherhood in order to raise healthy children and educate the future generation for the community. Sport also allows them to participate in important social activities.” In accord with this general mission, women’s sports is seen by the government as helping to “develop and preserve” women’s physical and mental health, making women more perceptive, enhancing their spiritual and moral well-being, and occupying leisure time.

It was only after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 that women’s sports were revived, when the daughter of President Ali-Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Fa’ezeh Hashemi, took a personal interest in women’s sports. Hashemi convened the First Islamic Countries’ Sports Solidarity Congress for Women in Tehran. The congress led to the founding of an organization that held “Islamic Countries’ Women Sports Solidarity Games” in 1993 and 1997 and that has become the major women’s sports organization in the Muslim world. At these games women from predominantly Muslim countries competed in the total absence of men. In addition to organizing the games, it supports and encourages women’s sports, collects information about Muslim women athletes, and produces reports and books.

Under Hashemi’s leadership, the state has allocated more money for women’s sports, and sports halls and swimming pools have been set aside for women. At these facilities, women compete according to international rules and standards, but men are not allowed to be present. Women in Iran now participate in twenty-five different disciplines including such individual sports as handball, tennis, karate, and equestrian, and team sports such as basketball and hockey. Programs are also available for disabled women athletes. In addition, young women may attend special sports high schools, study physical education in fourteen universities, and obtain advanced degrees so as to be able to teach physical education to other women. Moreover, as most women’s sports must be conducted without men present, Iranian women are active in all aspects of sports including training, coaching, and administration. Women hold three of the eleven seats on the National Olympic Committee. The dress codes imposed on Iranian women by the state mean that internationally Iranian women have been able to compete only in shooting and rowing, and Iranian women did compete in shooting at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Despite these advances, women’s sport participation remains controversial in Iran and in the spring of 1996 became a major political issue when Hashemi advocated allowing women to ride bicycles in one of Tehran’s parks. Muslim conservatives objected, but her election to the Iranian parliament in 1996 and her nomination to the vice-presidency of the National Olympic Committee allowed her to stand firm. On the other side of the argument, Iranian feminists consider current policies inadequate and demand further concessions, such as the right to attend men’s soccer games.

H. E. Chehabi (with the assistance of the General Office of Women Sport Affairs, Islamic Republic of Iran)

See also Islamic Countries’ Women’s Sports Solidarity Council, Islamic Countries’ Women’s Sports Solidarity Games

(c) Berkshire 2001

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