Iranian Sportswomen Kick Down Barriers

Female athletes shine at Asian games despite ayatollah anger back home.
December 10, 2010
Khadijeh Azadpour, who won a gold medal in martial art wushu at the Asian Games in November. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Khadijeh Azadpour, who won a gold medal in martial art wushu at the Asian Games in November. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Martial arts like wushu, shown here, are popular female sports in Iran. Women have to cover up completely, while their foreign adversaries can move more freely in lighter clothing. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Martial arts like wushu, shown here, are popular female sports in Iran. Women have to cover up completely, while their foreign adversaries can move more freely in lighter clothing. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Iran’s female rowers competing in Guangzhou. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Iran’s female rowers competing in Guangzhou. (Photo: Mehdi Marizad, Fars News Agency)
Susan Hajipour, who won a bronze medal for taekwondo in the Asian Games, receives a warm welcome on arriving back in Tehran. (Photo: Hossein Salehi-Ara, Fars News Agency)
Susan Hajipour, who won a bronze medal for taekwondo in the Asian Games, receives a warm welcome on arriving back in Tehran. (Photo: Hossein Salehi-Ara, Fars News Agency)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets Iranian champions from the Asian Games. (Photo: Hamed Jafarnejad, Fars News Agency)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meets Iranian champions from the Asian Games. (Photo: Hamed Jafarnejad, Fars News Agency)
A high-jump competition in Tehran (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
A high-jump competition in Tehran (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Women have competed internationally in shooting events for several years. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Women have competed internationally in shooting events for several years. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
A track event. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
A track event. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Golf has become very popular in Tehran. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Golf has become very popular in Tehran. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Racing in the female cycling league. (Photo: Majid Asgaripour, Mehr News Agency)
Racing in the female cycling league. (Photo: Majid Asgaripour, Mehr News Agency)
This polo match pitted Iranians against the British women’s team in 2006. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
This polo match pitted Iranians against the British women’s team in 2006. (Photo: Sajjad Safari, Mehr News Agency)
Kart-racing competition in Tehran (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Kart-racing competition in Tehran (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Dress rules apply for the national football league, too. (Photo: Zohreh Sehhat, Fars News Agency)
Dress rules apply for the national football league, too. (Photo: Zohreh Sehhat, Fars News Agency)
Header in hejab. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Header in hejab. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Gymnastics are permitted only for smaller girls, not teenagers or adults. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Gymnastics are permitted only for smaller girls, not teenagers or adults. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
A conventional view of womanhood at the opening of a female sports event in Tehran. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
A conventional view of womanhood at the opening of a female sports event in Tehran. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Women are pushing the boundaries of what is permissible. These are players in a rugby championship. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)
Women are pushing the boundaries of what is permissible. These are players in a rugby championship. (Photo: Milad Payami, Fars News Agency)

Iranian athletes excelled at the Guangzhou 2010 Asian Games in November,and women were prominent among them – stirring controversy among conservatives at home.

With 88 places on the national team, female competitors accounted for a quarter of the Iranian force, which took fourth place overall at the games, its highest ranking in three decades.

The top Iranian sportswoman was Khadijeh Azadpour, who took gold in wushu, a martial art, and many others won silver and bronze medals.

The level of female participation in sports places Iran ahead of many other Islamic states, but it is still controversial at home.

The government is left in an ambivalent position, torn between backing women's sports and accommodating the deep-seated hostility from conservative Shia clerics.

Before the national team left for Guangzhou, Iranian vice-president Ali Saeedlou, who heads the national physical education organisation, promised a new home and other rewards to anyone who came home with a gold medal.

The house deeds were supposed to be handed over when the team touched down in Tehran, but when Azadpour asked where her reward was, she was told she would receive it only if she got married.

After this was reported widely in the media, Saeedlou had to issue a correction, saying that "all gold medalists are to get apartments, married or unmarried".

During the Asian games, Marzieh Akbarabadi, deputy head of the physical education organisation, was asked by a reporter why the Iranian sportswomen were being shown more on Persian-language TV stations based outside the country than they were on state television channels. She replied that it was hard to get top clerics to consent to female participation in sport.

A number of senior clerics were highly critical of the presence of female Iranian competitors at the games. Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpayegani, 91, said sending female athletes to events abroad was a "disgrace".

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