Guest Essay: The Islamic Republic’s mandatory rule limits its female athletes

Iranian climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without a hijab, violating the Islamic Republic’s mandatory rule. What does that mean for other Iranian athletes?


(Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Iranian athlete Elnaz Rekabi competed at the Asian Climbing Competition finals in Seoul, South Korea, without wearing a hijab on Oct. 16. (Illustration by Susan Behrends Valenzuela)

Nicky Kashani, Guest Contributor

On Oct. 16, Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi disobeyed the Islamic Republic’s restrictions on female athletes and competed in an international tournament in Seoul without wearing a hijab. Soon after the news broke and her video went viral, which sparked global admiration for her apparent support for the Iranian people, Rekabi’s family and friends lost contact with her for over 24 hours. Sources reported that, alongside Iranian authorities, Rekabi checked out of her hotel a day earlier than planned, and had her phone and passport confiscated

Despite countless warnings and threats against the Iranian people from the head of Iran’s revolutionary guard, we are now seven weeks into the chaos that erupted from the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16. Tensions are high — what began as protests against mandatory hijab laws have turned into an uprising against the Iranian regime. The lack of information about Rekabi’s whereabouts led to widespread panic about her safety. 

The following Tuesday morning, the Iranian embassy in Seoul denied claims that Rekabi was missing and announced she was returning to Iran. The same day, a story was posted on her Instagram, which apologized for the worries she had caused.

“Due to bad timing and the unanticipated call for me to climb the wall, my head covering inadvertently came off,” the story read. It also confirmed that she was on her way back to Iran with her teammates as per a “pre-arranged schedule.”

A state-run news agency interviewed Rekabi upon her arrival, to which she confirmed and reiterated the statement posted on her social media. She also insisted that she did not go missing and that her return had been planned. Despite the Instagram story and interview, crowds of people greeted her in Tehran, cheering her name and calling her a hero. It is important to note that the Islamic Republic has been known to have enforced false confessions of hundreds of activists, and a source claims her apology to have been forced as well. 

While it may be impossible to know what happened, Elnaz Rekabi’s actions will not go unnoticed by the government or the Iranian people. Now dubbed a hero, she is under enormous pressure and will most likely face imprisonment. Authorities claim she is “in need of rest” and must stay home. However, others claimed that she was under house arrest

But as extensive as the media coverage has been, I don’t believe it fully grasps the severity of the situation and what Rekabi’s actions mean to Iranian women and athletes. The coverage has failed to mention what it means to be a female athlete in Iran and the struggles that come with it. 

As a former gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics in Iran, I have been closely following the reporting of Rekabi’s actions and return home for the past two weeks. To highlight the problems female athletes face, I spoke to a former Iranian athlete and current international judge. They wished to remain anonymous and will be referred to as Alice. 

“As a female athlete, you are always secondary,” Alice said. “The priority goes to men athletes at all times.”

They continued to say that facilities dedicated to men are often better equipped. Men’s practice and women’s practice have to have absolutely no overlap, and the prime times at shared facilities are usually dedicated to men. 

“That means men get to pick afternoons and evenings during the week, and mornings for the weekends,” they said. “The rest of the low-demand, underutilized timeslots go to female athletes. There are more competitions and events held for male athletes than their female counterparts. The fewer the number of competitions, the lower the budget is for female athletes, and thus the fewer facilities and equipment and the less attention — continuing the vicious cycle.”

Alice highlighted that this gender segregation also applies to female athletes’ families, with many fathers and brothers never being allowed to enter facilities their daughters or sisters are competing or practicing in. They explained that a large portion of Iranian female athletes never get to compete or celebrate with their families.

“That discourages them from pursuing sports, because there are almost no meaningful achievements or moments for them to share and cherish,” they said. 

I experienced this when I competed in Iran between the ages of 9 and 14. My father and brother were never allowed to attend my performances, competitions or award ceremonies. Additionally, we were only allowed to take photos and videos when we were fully covered and wearing hijabs.

The media has failed to consider what it means for an Iranian female athlete to compete without a hijab and how serious of an offense it is both in and out of Iran. Alice could not imagine competing in the public domain without wearing a hijab, and feared the federation’s reactions and associated consequences. 

“Your athletic career would come to an end, and you wouldn’t be allowed to be a part of the federation in any way — not as a coach, athlete, or judge,” Alice said. “The government will accuse you of acting against the regime and can sentence you to jail. Although a lot of Iranian athletes do not like to wear a hijab, they are very scared to disobey the rule and are forced to do so.”

Even as a judge in international competitions, Alice had to be mindful of their appearance and actions. 

“I have participated in many international competitions around the world, and every time I have had to wear a hijab when I am representing Iran,” they said. “I only wore my hijab in the arena, but other nationalities still found it questionable. I had to explain that having a hijab is not the Iranian culture but a mandate by the government.” 

The mandatory hijab laws and countless restrictions on women discourage many women from pursuing sports in Iran. In my case, I invested all my time and energy into gymnastics, and trained a minimum of six hours a day alongside some of the most brilliant athletes and coaches I have ever been fortunate enough to learn from and work with. And yet, all our hard work went repeatedly unnoticed. Despite being on the national team we were never allowed to compete with other countries, as per the mandatory hijab laws, because they had male coaches. Instead, we resorted to having only national competitions. After competing in the same tournaments over and over again, one eventually loses their motivation to continue. 

“When I was first invited to attend an international sports event as a judge, the federation warned me that authorities from the Iranian embassy were supervising my behavior — both in and outside the arena — and that I should abide by all government rules, including wearing hijab, even during my travels,” they continued. “I’m unsure if it actually happened but the travel experience was strange and scary for me. I felt a constant shadow, a set of eyes watching me at all times.”

As an American citizen, I could have begun competing in the United States instead, but at the time I still lived in Iran and feared that competing without a hijab would result in the federation revoking my titles and achievements. I decided to focus on my studies instead, which shifted my career from athletics to academics. However, more important than discouraging athletic careers, laws like wearing a mandatory hijab pose a significant threat to the safety of Iranian female athletes, who against all odds, pursue careers in sports. Rekabi’s current circumstance is a representation of such threats. 

While having nothing but admiration, respect and support for Rekabi’s brave act of defiance, Alice has no doubt that Rekabi was fully aware of the consequences of her actions. 

“She sacrificed her career and future to show women around the world that they need to stand up and raise their voices,” Alice said. “As a former athlete who competed in the same environment, I am not sure if I would have had, or will ever have, the courage to do what she did.” 

Nonetheless, after watching her compete without a hijab, and given the lack of information about her whereabouts, Alice was sure Rekabi would not be returning to Iran. 

“There have been a few similar instances with other athletes and judges in the past, and almost all had to stay abroad and file for refuge,” they said. “I have no doubt that a lot happened to her in the days before she landed in Iran. I am sure she faced horrible threats from the federation and the ministry of sports.”

Alice also believes that the regime had forced Rekabi to post her Instagram story before landing in Iran.

“We all know she purposefully competed without a hijab,” Alice said. “She was [as Iranians say] ‘shouting with no voice’ that we want our basic human freedoms back.” 

News publications must raise awareness about the disadvantages that Iranian women face when covering the current circumstances and protests in Iran to emphasize the significance of the brave sacrifices of Rekabi and other Iranian women. 

“Iranian women are hardworking talented individuals who love to be active in all sports industries,” Alice said. “Just like other women, they deserve the chance to be able to demonstrate their capabilities to the rest of the world, and I only hope that mandatory hijab laws are removed so that we can do so.” 

Nicky Kashani is an Iranian raised in Tehran, and a graduate student in NYU’s Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement program.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Nicky Kashani at [email protected].