Iranian Female Athletes Find Their Way

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 04:  Zahra Nemati of the Islamic Republic of Iran competes in her Women's Individual Recurve - W2
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 04: Zahra Nemati of the Islamic Republic of Iran competes in her Women's Individual Recurve - W2 class Gold medal match against Elisabetta Mijno of Italy on day 6 of the London 2012 Paralympic Games at The Royal Artillery Barracks on September 4, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images)

At this summer's London paralympics, Iran's Zahra Nemati won an archery gold, becoming the first Iranian woman to win a gold medal at any Olympic Games. In an interview with the Tehran Times, Nemati said that the lack of facilities did not (and does not) prevent Iranian female athletes from succeeding in sports.

In many respects, her statement is a half-truth. Since 1979, Iranian sportswomen have faced many obstacles in order to participate in international competitions -- especially since both government and international organizations have designed and implemented policies that stand in their way. As an immediate example, recall what happened to Iran's national football team, one of the best squads in the Middle East. In 2011, FIFA disqualified the female soccer team from entering Olympic competition. FIFA pointed to the to the hijab uniform the athletes were obliged to wear, deeming them a breach of the association's dress code and promoting of religious symbols in international competition. Female footballers had no choice in this matter: not only did their government impose the headscarf, but FIFA also prevented them from participating because of this headscarf.

Caught between Iran's state policies and international regulations, Iranian women have lost many opportunities in the field of sports in the past three decades. With the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979, unveiled women were banned from entering the public sphere. After this ruling, many women's sports teams were disbanded. Radical ideologies and conservative beliefs put a stop to the athletes' activities in the first years after the Revolution. Traditionalist clerics believed that women's participation in any sort of sport was contrary to Islamic teachings.

In the 1990s, Faezeh Hashemi, President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's youngest daughter, launched a campaign advocating women's sports. After meeting in Qom with Grand Ayatollahs, high-ranking clerics in charge of issuing fatwas for Shi'a Muslims, she endeavored to recreate a community of female athletes for the first time since the revolution in spite of the heavy-handed criticism from conservative government officials. Her opponents went so far as to call her a faheshe, meaning "prostitute" in Persian -- even though she was a believer, a high-ranking cleric's daughter, and a wearer of the chador. Faezeh Hashemi's efforts culminated in holding the first female-only sports competitions for Muslim countries in Tehran for the years 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2005. However, no more events have been held since 2005. President Ahmadinejad's administration dissolved the Islamic Federation of Women's Sports, Iran's governing body in charge of organizing the competition which had Hashemi as its head. However there were the rumors that this decision was made in order to dismiss Hashemi from her position.

As a result of compulsory hijab restrictions and rising international regulations, Iranian women athletes tended to participate in sports which did not subject them to the same legal provisions in international competitions. Archery was one such sport (martial arts, such as judo and wushu, car racing, rowing and chess are among the sports that Iranian women play professionally, mainly in recent years.) Archer Lida Fariman was the first Iranian female athlete to participate in the Olympics since the 1979 revolution. She was also the only female athlete on Iran's Olympic team at the 1996 Atlanta games.

Although many barriers still remain, Iranian female athletes vow to compete with their fellow sportswomen from other countries. Their presence in sport tournaments, however, could be more victorious and joyous if both the Iranian state and international sports governing bodies allow them to pursue their dreams -- free from any political and cultural obligations.