Iran’s regime has always pressured female athletes to abide by strict hijab rules during international games, but many are now refusing to obey despite repercussions.
Just last week, members of Iran's national women's muay thai team boldly challenged the regulations by competing unveiled at the Asian Championships held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital.
This courageous act has triggered an outcry among hardliners, with some officials even disputing the team's official representation of the Islamic Republic. Others are calling on the Ministry of Sports to take decisive action to quell such open defiance.
The government has proposed a bill that, if approved, will impose heavy fines and other punishments on celebrities including athletes who appear unveiled in public.
Over the past few years, several female athletes have chosen to compete unveiled at international events, seeking asylum abroad to avoid being compelled to return to Iran and face punishment. Notably, 19-year-old Dorsa Derakhshani, an International Master and Woman Grandmaster since 2016, was barred from the national team after refusing to wear a headscarf at the 2017 Gibraltar Chess Festival. She was then a temporary resident of Spain.
"Minutes before a match the deputy chairman of the federation would constantly whisper in my ear to be careful not to let my head cover to drop," Parisa Jahanfekrian, former weightlifting champion who is now living in Germany, told Iran International. Once in very warm weather he told me at least ten times to tuck my hair under my head cover only two minutes before the match.
"There, I was constantly thinking about the consequences if my head cover slipped back instead of thinking how to hold the halter and how to carryout my technic," she said.
It was agonizing to conform with all the dos and don'ts that were imposed on female athletes, Jahanfekrian told Iran International, adding that there would always be meetings before international competitions about hijab.
"They demanded that we always was wore a long tunic (called maanto in Iran) and a pullover headscarf with stitched front (called Maghna'e in Iran) when we left our rooms during our stay abroad.
Female athletes who defy hijab rules receive substantial support and are often hailed as heroes by the public. However, they also endure significant pressure from the authorities.
During the anti-government protests of the previous year, climber Elnaz Rekabi made a bold statement by discarding her hijab during the finals of a competition in South Korea, as an act of solidarity with the Woman, Life, Freedom protesters. She received a warm welcome upon her return to Iran after the competition.
Soon after, state media released a video interview with her at the airport arrival hall. In the interview, she referred to her decision to appear without a hijab as "inadvertent." Many speculated that her statements were made under the pressure of regime agents. Social media users criticized the regime's attempts to undermine her convictions, noting that their efforts had ultimately failed.
People on social media said the regime had tried “to break this brave woman,” force her to repudiate her own convictions, and discredit her among hundreds of thousands of young girls who admired her “but as always, they failed.”
The regime has since then been faced with the dilemma of whether to allow women's participation at international competitions and ignore their defiance or keep them home.
The rule is that arms must be always covered to the wrist and legs to the ankle. Roya Mahboodi, an Asian Women’s Arm-Wrestling champion told Etemad daily in June that a government official banned the sport for some period of time because the wrist and a part of the elbow could be seen during matches.
She recounted how wearing a shaal (normal rectangular scarf), which lets more hair to cascade around the face and in the back, was banned whereas maghna'e tightly frames the face and comes down to the chest. Shaal has been the head cover of choice for many Iranian women who do not believe in wearing hijab but have to abide by the hijab rules.