Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff 

INU - On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Iran was set to host its first marathon foot race this weekend. Naturally, the announcement has made public running events the latest flashpoint in the conflict between state-imposed religious principles and common features of modern society, including participation in and view of spectator sports. The Islamic Republic has already become the object of widespread criticism about its general ban on co-mingling of men and women, which includes a comprehensive ban on women in stadiums where men compete in sports like soccer or volleyball.

The upcoming marathon prompted the latest innovation in these restrictions, with the regime necessitating that women run a separate course from that of male participants. Specifically, women will be made to run on an indoor track, whereas men will take an outdoor route. What’s more, despite the imposed privacy of the female venue, women will still be permitted to observe strict guidelines of Islamic dress while running. This means that whereas male runners can dress in comfortable shorts and t-shirts, women will be have to wear hijabs as well as covering the entirety of their bodies except for their hands and feet.

Although this race will be the first true marathon in Iran, there have been other track events in the past which similarly challenged the regime’s gender restrictions. In April of last year, an outdoor race in Shiraz attracted the participation of two women who ran as a form of protest. The regime’s oppressive dress code and other restrictions on women’s rights have become common targets of social activism, including the prominent and ongoing “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign, in which women remove their head coverings and post pictures to social media.

But at the same time that some women have shown willingness to defy the relevant restrictions, the regime has also sought to increase its enforcement of the same. In an apparent example of this phenomenon, Tehran’s “morality police” stopped a 14-year-old girl on the street in February, beat her, and cited her for violation of the legal dress code because she was wearing ripped jeans.

Around the same time, Iranian authorities barred another girl, Dorsa Derakhshani, from playing competitive chess in Iran because she had appeared without a veil at the Gibraltar Chess Festival. The Washington Post pointed to this incident as demonstrating that Iran “has shown itself to be so strict regarding its wardrobe rules that it’s reached its arm well beyond its borders.”

To this it might be added that the regime also imposes the religiously-justified restrictions upon visitors to the country, as well. Women who have been invited to the country to compete in sporting events or as part of political delegations have frequently been told that they must abide by the Iranian dress code. Some have responded by refusing to travel to the country, whereas others have opened themselves up to international criticism by dutifully abiding by the restrictions.

In February, Swedish female officials visited Tehran to discuss prospects for trade between the two countries, and were accused by activists and Swedish citizens of betraying their country’s self-proclaimed feminist identity. By contrast, the US chess player Nazi Paikidze made headlines last year when she announced that she would not participate in an international competition scheduled to take place in Iran because of the country’s sexist restrictions.

Nevertheless, the Washington Post reports that this weekend’s segregated marathon will include “at least 160 foreign runners,” including 50 women. Furthermore, the event was organized with the help of Westerners including Dutchman Sebastiaan Straten, who said that he personally does not agree with the gender separation but is “trying to find other ways to make step[s] [forward] for female running in Iran.”

Critics can be expected to argue that the seeming lack of pressure on Iranian sports authorities will embolden Iran to continue the same strict enforcement. Meanwhile, it seems clear that the restrictions are not diminishing and may even be growing to including more enforcement both at home and abroad. On Tuesday, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported that Iranian authorities had barred female billiard players from competition for a year, alleging without any explanation that they had “violated the Islamic code of conduct” while competing in China.

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