Iran and Women’s Sport: Resolving an Unhappy Marriage

Farheen Asim – Pakistan

The Iranian female sports arena has been hindered by gender segregation laws, and there is much disagreement on how to alleviate the problems caused by oppressive gender politics. The mandatory dress code that has been installed by the Iranian government for the upcoming Women’s World Chess Championship in 2017 has further strained existing gender parity issues, and some of the proposed retaliations to this dress code could serve to counteract the progress made by existing pro-reformists in Iran.

Women’s sport in Iran has long been impaired by gender segregation laws which hinder female participation in international events. Female athletes who are trained by non-female coaches are not allowed to attend international tournaments. Iranian women are forbidden to attend or spectate men’s sporting events in stadiums and the punishment for doing so can be severe. Female athletes are also required to don hijabs and non-revealing clothing in any stadiums or arenas that have a male audience. The vice president of the Iranian Olympic Committee, Abdolreza Savar, decreed in 2007 that “severe punishment will be meted out to those who do not follow Islamic rules during sporting competitions“. If not for the relaxing of clothing laws by international sporting bodies like FIFA and the International Olympics Committee in recent times, Iranian females would not even be able to participate in sports like football, weightlifting, and swimming; this should no longer be a problem in today’s world.

The problematic mandatory dress code has now resulted in a boycott of the Women’s World Chess Championship in 2017, which are due to take place in Iran. Nazi Paikidze-Barnes, a Georgian-American chess player, is currently lobbying for the host country to be changed so that female participants will not be subject to what she believes to be an oppressive dress codethe tournament requires all participants to wear a hijab.

She said: “I think it’s unacceptable to host a women’s World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second-class citizens.” Her unwillingness to be complicit in the mistreatment of women in Iran is admirable and her rhetoric for why the host country should be changed appears to be sound. However, depriving Iran of the ability to host the tournament would veritably damage its efforts at attaining gender parity in sports. The Chess World Championship would be the biggest female sporting event in Iran’s history, and by shifting the location of the tournament, it could potentially discourage Iranian leadership from attempting to host future tournaments, which would prove extremely detrimental to female athletes.

There has been a backlash from prominent members of the chess community against the boycott; Mitra Hejazipour, an Iranian female grandmaster, asserts that lobbying to change the venue of the event would counteract much of the progress made by women in Iran to boost female participation in sports. Given how unlikely it is for Iran to reform its gender discrimination and segregation laws on the sole basis of this boycott, the boycott itself could be construed as an exercise in futility. Moreover, there seems to be very little financial incentive for Iran to reform its gender politics to cull these protests, as the Championships themselves are not likely to generate a substantial amount of revenue.

Instead of initiating a discourse on gender politics or engaging with existing pro-reformists in Iran, the boycott would only bypass all the current efforts to improve female representation in sports. This monolithic western feminism, which does not take into account the needs of the women that it accuses of being oppressed, is not the solution to Iran’s gender inequalities. The socio-cultural and political context of the region needs to be studied extensively before any attempts at formulating a solution can be made. Instead of lobbying for a venue change, the dissidents could instead attend the tournament to display their solidarity with the Iranian women. Abiding by the mandatory dress code does not necessarily have to mean they are condoning the suppression of women in the country. It could mean that they have levied the cost of non-attendance and decided that it is in the best interest of Iranian women to have this initial platform to encourage incremental female representation in sports.

By accounting for the hybridity and multiplicity of female perspectives in Iran, a more tactful approach can be developed that will adequately address the diversities of values and religious beliefs in the country. It is perhaps telling that most of the backlash for this boycott has come from Iranian women themselves, who understand how critical it is for Iran to host such an event. The important thing is to not exclude the Iranian women from their own struggle. Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian woman who spent nearly half a year in prison for combating the gender segregation laws in Iran, had this to say:

“I am firmly against the international community using the compulsory hijab as a means to put pressure [sic] and isolate Iran. Day by day, Iranian women are becoming more empowered and are pushing aside traditional, legal and political discrimination (…) Those who are worried for the situation of human rights in Iran, if they are really serious, have to acknowledge these efforts and see these capacities.”

If the boycott is successful and Iran is no longer deemed to be a viable host country for the 2017 World Chess Championship, it will not be the Iranian Government that suffers. It will be the Iranian women that bear the brunt of this misguided punishment.