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Female Iranian Athlete Bucking Official Tide Over 'Record' Swim

Iranian swimmer Elham Asghari in her YouTube video
Imagine swimming in a wet suit, a swimming cap, a scarf secured tightly around your face, and a body-covering cape -- and then being told the attire is too revealing.

That's what Iranian swimmer Elham Asghari was wearing on June 11 when she swam for eight hours along the Caspian Sea coast in northern Iran for what she says was a record-breaking distance -- for an Iranian woman, in those waters -- of 20 kilometers.

Several female witnesses watched her swim from nearby kayaks as she allegedly broke her own previous record. The 32-year-old said she swam along a women’s beach in Nowshahr, where no man could see her.

But according to Asghari, officials refused to register her record because of her attire, which they said did not conform to Islamic norms.

Asghari declined to talk to RFE/RL because of sensitivities inside the country. But she spoke to Iranian media and posted a video with her comments on YouTube:

"That day, my attire covered my body. I had seven witnesses. I swam at a women's beach. No man was present there," she says. "But now they've made an Islamic objection against my attire. Those who cannot swim 20 meters themselves have taken my 20-kilometer record hostage.”

'I Won't Give In'

In a June 27 interview with the "Bahar" daily, Asghari said officials had told her that the record could not be registered because an official women's costume for swimming in open waters has not been designed in the Islamic republic.

Asghari has refused to accept the decision. She says she has contacted all Iranian bodies in charge of sports and has also taken her fight to social media.

"I won't give in to pressure," she says in the video posted on YouTube, while adding that swimming is not just a sport for men. Asghari's video has been shared widely on social media.

Well-known Iranian sports commentator Mehdi Rostampour says Asghari's plight has received a lot of attention and support.

"I think Elham Asghari has shown lots of courage," Rostampour says. "She used this relatively open postelection atmosphere, she recorded a video, gave some interviews, and said that she will defend her right. She said she will follow up. The persistence of this swimmer is not surprising for someone who can swim for 20 kilometers. It shows she has self-confidence and a strong will, which is commendable. She stood by her words and managed to inform others."

A female Ninjutsu practitioner jumps over a sword as members of various schools showcase their skills to the media in their gym, northwest of Tehran, in February 2012.
A female Ninjutsu practitioner jumps over a sword as members of various schools showcase their skills to the media in their gym, northwest of Tehran, in February 2012.
Iranian women face many restrictions because of the Islamic laws that have been enforced in the country following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The restrictions include women's participation in sports.

Female athletes can compete only in some sports, including soccer, archery, target shooting, Ninjutsu, and Sanshou, where they have to wear approved Islamic uniforms that often limit their movement.

Asghari, for example, says her Islamic swimming attire weighs six kilograms when wet, making swimming difficult and causing injury to her body.

Increase In Restrictions

Despite the restrictions, many women have successfully made their way into professional sports. They face criticism from hard-liners who every now and then speak against women's participation in sports that they deem un-Islamic.

Rostampour says under Iran's outgoing President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, sports restrictions for women have increased.

"They prevented women [from participating] in some of the sports in which they were slowly making progress since the 1979 revolution," Rostampour says. "They banned [the sports] for women with the explanation that they are harmful for Muslim women. They banned some martial sports for women."

Asghari says her earlier record in 1999 was registered and that no one objected to her attire then.

She told "Bahar" that she had spoken to the deputy head of Iran's Physical Education Department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, who is in charge of women's sports.

"She talked to me in a way that even if someone swims wearing a scarf and a chador, it wouldn’t get their approval," Asghari said.

Asghari added that Akbarabadi had suggested that she should perhaps take up a different sport.

Rostampour says Asghari is not the only female athlete lacking official support. He says mountain climber Leyla Esfandiari, who died in 2011, also did not receive backing from the government.

He says Esfandiari "would climb the world's highest peaks and join international teams. The government would not support her. Officials reacted only after she fell and died [while climbing in the Himalayas]. They wanted to have a ceremony for her.

"In the videos that Esfandiari recorded before her death, she said she had not received any support or encouragement and that she even paid for all the costs of her international climbing."

Iranian sports officials have not publicly reacted to Asghari's complaints. Meanwhile, Asghari has vowed to continue her fight for her record to be registered.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is the author of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.