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Iran's 'Ancient Sport' Not A Man's World Anymore

Practicing An Ancient Sport In Iran
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WATCH: An Iranian woman practices the ancient discipline of varzesh bastani at a zurkhaneh, or traditional gym.

Iran's "ancient sport" -- or "varzesh bastani" -- a traditional form of athletics that combines elements of Islam and ancient Persian beliefs, has long been a male-only domain.

But not so much anymore. In recent years, an increasing number of women have taken on the discipline.

The sport is also referred to as "varzesh pahlavani," meaning the sport of heroes. It includes strength exercises, wrestling, and Sufi-like whirling to the sound of drumbeats and epic poems recited by the so-called "morshed" -- a master who leads the rituals inside a traditional gym known as "zurkhaneh," or "house of strength."

Now women are facing opposition from those who claim that varzesh bastani and zurkhaneh belong to men and that the presence of women violates its sanctity.

Those critics say only men should be allowed to perform the ancient rituals believed to have been originally aimed at training warriors and instilling them with a code of ethics.

Azerbaijani enthusiasts of varzesh pahlavani perform during a celebration of the Persian New Year, known as Noruoz, in Baku.
Azerbaijani enthusiasts of varzesh pahlavani perform during a celebration of the Persian New Year, known as Noruoz, in Baku.

Women, who have been pushing the boundaries in the Islamic republic's discriminatory laws and practices, disagree. They say they have a right to perform the country's ancient epic sport, a symbol of pride inscribed on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

They have been seeking support from the authorities and senior ayatollahs, as well as using social media to influence public opinion.

"There is no other sport where women have not been allowed to participate," a female varzesh bastani athlete who did not want to be named told RFE/RL.

'Many Talented Women'

She said the number of women performing the ancient form of athletics was relatively small but growing quickly. "[Among us] there are many talented women who can shine," she said.

Many of the women performing varzesh bastani have reportedly become fans through male relatives who are athletes.

"We exercise at home unless we find an empty zurkhaneh where we can use the tools," the woman told RFE/RL.

But even when allowed into a traditional gym, the "gowd" -- an octagonal pit where athletes practice -- remains off-limits as a "sacred place," she said.

Last week, the manager and master of a zurkhaneh near Tehran were dismissed hours after a video posted online showed a woman performing varzesh bastani exercises in the domed area of the gym.

The unnamed woman had reportedly performed for a few minutes while the zurkhaneh's master played his drum to show respect. "Why don't these gentlemen allow women to practice in a field that is rooted in this country's culture, traditions, and religion?" Iranian media quoted the dismissed zurkhaneh manager, Valiollah Kargar, as saying. "Our senior clerics have clearly said that there's no ban on women's presence and activity in zurkhaneh."

"A zurkhaneh is not holier than a mosque or the House of God [the Great Mosque of Mecca, considered to be Islam's most sacred site] to ban women from entering it," Rayehe Mozafarian, a well-known activist and athlete, told Iranian media.

"They have no [reason] to ban our activities," she said, adding that she had personally obtained religious decrees from three senior ayatollahs in support of women practicing the ancient Iranian system of athletics.

"The fatwa says that if women perform sports in full hijab and do not create corruption, it is [accepted]," she said. "And this applies to varzesh bastani as well."

On June 7, a group of seminary students and others, including a few athletes, staged a sit-in in front of a Tehran zurkhaneh to protest against women taking up the ancient sport.

'No Logical Reason'

In a statement published by Iranian media, they criticized training zurkhaneh by women as "reprehensible." They claimed women's participation was "a stain" on the records of officials, arguing that "there is absolutely no record of women's presence" in the field.

Reacting to the protest, the head of the Zurkhaneh Sports Federation, Mojataba Johari, said there was no logical reason behind it.

Johari said women exercise in gyms around to the country to "Western music that does conform with our culture" without any problems. "Why should we oppose our women who have been moving along with men or even ahead of them in many areas," Johari told the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Johari noted that special clothing had been designed for the "numerous" female participants. "The goal is for women to practice in zurkhaneh in a female atmosphere with clothes that fit perfectly the status and dignity of this field," he said.

Athletes have also spoken in support of women's participation, including Hamidreza Kordi, who called on opponents to mind their own business. "Please get rid of these ideas. Or at least don't interfere," Kordi said. "One of the reasons this sport has not been added to the Olympic Games is that there are no women."

The controversy is another example of how Iranian women -- despite repeated setbacks, systematic discrimination, and state repression --continue to push back against social, religious, and political conventions to raise awareness and fight to improve their rights, says Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House in London.

"The tug of war over women and sports requires greater attention from the government and requires greater public pressure on the political establishment to address discriminatory practices," Vakil told RFE/RL.

For her part, Mozafarian said that she'll keep pressing for women's right to practice varzesh bastani. "Even if it is only at home, I will keep practicing and posting videos of my exercises for the women of my country to see," Mozafarian told the Sharq daily.