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TAEKWONDO IN A HIJAB: Muscular Feminism in Iran
Pattrice Jones reports on how women and girls in Iran are expressing themselves through the medium of sport
Featuring: Hijabs. Muhammad Ali. Political Activism. The Ayatollahs.
ara Khoshjamal-Fekri circles her opponent warily, watching for the opportunity to slip in a subversive strike. For this Taekwondo champion, success depends on the ability to seize every opportunity to catch her adversary unaware and unprepared. Photos of this teen sensation adorn the walls of gyms at which girls kick, punch and spin, learning the art and science of hand-to-hand combat. Laleh Seddigh rounds the race course, urged to drive faster and faster by hordes of screaming female fans clinging to the chain-link fence encircling the track. Adept at both circuit and motor-rally racing, stylish and suave 31-year-old Seddigh competes — and usually wins — in the top racing division known as the “free class.” All racers and fighters must be focused and vigilant to avoid dangerous incidents. As Iranian women competing with repressive regulations as well as their athletic adversaries, these two champions must be doubly so. At the Beijing Olympics, Sara Khoshjamal-Fekri tangled with opponents while hampered by a headscarf. Meanwhile, champion driver Laleh Seddigh sat out a racing season, banned from the sport for a year for a technical infraction often overlooked when perpetrated by male drivers.
The experiences of these elite Iranian athletes mirror those of everyday Iranian women fighting for rights that have been won and lost before. In every corner of the country, campaigners with the Change for Equality movement relentlessly exploit chance opportunities, slipping petitions and pamphlets to fellow citizens in public parks and shared taxis. Others languish in prison, restlessly awaiting the chance to re-enter the struggle. Athletes make music with their bodies, matching wit with muscle to win symbolic conflicts. Women’s bodies are the battlegrounds on which Iranian cultural and political conflicts often have been fought. Is it any wonder, then, that many Iranian girls and women are sport fanatics, defying authorities to cheer their favorite athletes and playing all sorts of sports themselves despite the discomfort of doing so within the limitations imposed by the fundamentalist regime? As Iranian feminist Mahsa Shekarloo has noted, contemporary Western media tend to portray Iranian women as either passive victims of tradition or plucky heroines defying tradition in order to embrace Western values. Yet neither view really takes account of the homegrown tradition of muscular feminism in a region still ruled with an iron fist by the Ayatollahs.
Throughout Iranian history women have fought fiercely — and often literally and physically — for their rights as women, workers and citizens. Women were frequently instrumental in preserving 19th-century Persia from colonisation by Britain or Russia. In one particularly striking episode, 300 pistol-packing women threatened to kill themselves and their sons and husbands if the Persian Parliament conceded to Russian demands. In the 20th century, radical Iranian women formed secret societies, organised women workers and founded progressive groups such as the Organisation of Revolutionary Women. More moderate women argued for women’s rights as a means of modernisation and development, a way of thinking that was in fact embraced by the Pahlavi dynasty of Shahs. Promulgated from the top by hated despots with ties to foreign powers, reforms such as unveiling met mixed reactions from both women and men. Some women felt the demand to be stylish participants in consumer culture to be a new and foreign form of oppression. While some men welcomed the newfound physical freedom of their sisters and mothers, others sorely resented what they perceived as their loss of control over their daughters and wives.
radical opponents of the Pahlavi dynasty joined forces with religious fundamentalists to topple the Shah.000 girls and women were executed for allegedly “anti-Islamic” or “counterrevolutionary” activity. Tehran sportswriter Leili Khorsand told the Hamburger Abendblatt that “sport has become a kind of selfhelp” for girls and women in Iran.000 girls and women were executed for allegedly “anti-Islamic” or “counterrevolutionary” activity. in an eerie echo of Soweto.Equality / Martial Arts In 1981. indeed. The film Offside shows the frustration this causes female sport spectators. women were forced to retreat and regroup. Others joined rural guerilla bands opposed to the new regime. Between 1979 and 1983. 50 schoolgirls were shot for demonstrating for their rights. who make up more than 60 percent of soccer fans. exile and imprisonment. Ironically. Heading for the Beijing Olympics. two armed women attacked Ayatollah Khomemeini’s spokesman. Can sport — which is. Behind the closed doors of such facilities. more than 20. But can elite achievements such as those of Sara Khoshjamal-Fekri and Laleh Seddigh contribute to the collective cause of women’s liberation? According to sports journalist Dave Even though collecting petition signatures is a legal activity. Hidden from view are the opportunities for collective consciousness raising and empowerment in female-only sport facilities. In 1981. The government fought back. Sport has been one arena of retrenchment. 50 schoolgirls were shot for demonstrating for their rights. in the end. Koreans suffered torture. authorities routinely menace the Campaign for Equality. In 1981. restrictions on female participation in sport have created a space for girls and women to literally empower themselves apart from male scrutiny. Taekwondo arose in Korea during its occupation by Japan. many Iranian girls are learning to fight.000 women seized the Department of Justice in Tehran. with more than 120. 15. In public. In 1979. And. nothing more than organised play — serve such a seriously subversive purpose? Exercise does lead to improved physical and mental health. In the face of such violent repression. Between 1979 and 1983. locking up its organisers and shutting down its website on the pretext that the campaign threatens state security. From 1910 through 1945. Outraged by this reversal of fortune.000 girls practicing Taekwondo alone. Khoshjamal-Fekri told reporters she hoped her appearance in the Olympics would “encourage other women in Iran and around the world to seek a greater social role”. thousands of the same women who had fought the Shah and danced in the streets to celebrate his flight were back out on the streets marching for the restoration of their own rights. more than 20. many Koreans maintained their strength and identity through clandestine practice of martial arts. empowering men to stone women’s demonstrations and publicly execute several prominent women.Within days. in an eerie echo of Soweto. mass executions and forced prostitution at the hand of the Japanese Imperial Army. Winter . Martial arts are very popular. Denied all political and cultural rights. the new leadership divested women of rights only recently won after decades of struggle. vivisection. That means that virtually all sport practice and competition takes place in strictly sex-segregated facilities. women must be covered except for their hands and faces and the shapes of their bodies must not be detectable beneath their clothing. Is it any wonder that such a subversive and empowering sport has been embraced by so many Iranian girls and women? Posters featuring Sara Khoshjamal-Fekri decorate the walls of the Iranian Taekwondo Federation. Best described as “the art of punching and kicking”. including the style of combat now known as Taekwondo. Campaigners have been sentenced to whippings.
“As the situation looks dire and the prospect of change seems lost. an agency specialising in publicity for television programmes. indeed. I now work with presenters and production companies across all broadcasters. is profiled in Niko Apel's documentary Sonbal.” “I am the greatest!” shouted African American boxer Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) upon capturing Olympic gold in 1960. This is a true grassroots movement in which campaigners in every corner of the country educate women and men in the course of asking for their signatures. Chiswick PERSONAL DETAILS: Director of Plank PR. I stayed there for eight years before leaving Five in September 2005 to set up Plank PR. that so many Iranian girls now know Taekwondo. Submit your proﬁle to house@sohohouse. Champions In A Chador.com Winter . Like Jackie Robinson before him — the first black baseball player in American major league baseball — Ali not only symbolised but galvanised the struggle for civil rights. CV: Studied journalism and PR at Cardiff Journalism School before moving to a PR consultancy in Bristol specialising in the promotion of yoghurt pots and ice-cream tubs.” she says. the screaming female fans clinging to the fences angered race authorities. as it was then. “but also the individual consciousness of the athlete themselves. then. HOUSE FAVOURITES: Long Sunday lunches in the private room at High Road House — the kind of day where you move over to the sofas for coffee. “Context is everything. 6 Music is a relatively new discovery — you can’t beat a bit of George Lamb followed by Nemone.” says Zirin. High Road House is a brilliant solution for people in Chiswick — a delightful mix of the perfect place to get a late-night refreshment and somewhere that’s family-friendly at the weekend.” And. SOHO HOUSE FOR THE FUTURE: The House Festival as a permanent ﬁxture every year. exile and imprisonment. But the hijab can’t cover their true strength or the naked aggression of the rulers who repress them. she tends to speak forthrightly. Even though collecting petition signatures is a legal activity. it took place in the context of a women’s movement. Like Robinson taunting opponents with his base-stealing abilities. More than any other female athlete in Iran. Campaigners have been sentenced to whippings. presenters and production companies. Sonbol Fatima. perhaps. Revving up to petition for rights that were won in 1975 only to be lost in 1979. In such moments. Laleh Seddigh and other female athletes similarly vitalise the fight for Iranian women’s rights? According to Zirin. women’s rights campaigners must sometimes feel like Laleh Seddigh. asking whether “sport can be an act of emancipation”. author of several books on the political history of sport. You can’t beat that end-of-term feeling and my stepson Alﬁe loves the carol competition. angering race authorities. whose adventures as the first Muslim woman in space were widely watched and cheered by girls and women within Iran in 2006. CLUB CONNECTIONS: I had been an envious visitor of Soho House for years and met Nick Jones while working with Kirsty Young at Five. Seddigh argues that fundamentalist proscriptions of women’s freedom thwart the true intentions of the Prophet Mohammed.” Iranian-born Anousheh Ansari. saved me. that depends on the movement and on the mindset of the athlete: “When Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match. As astronaut Anousheh Ansari says: “This and other efforts are small but important steps but require much more forceful strategies in order to implement real sustainable change in the society. at the moment I’m a sucker for the pure escapism of Lipstick Jungle and the BBC iPlayer has revolutionised my life. MEMBER HISTORY: I joined High Road House as a founder member when it opened a couple of years ago and became a committee member shortly after. teenage Taekwondo champion Sara Khoshjamal-Fekri’s pre-Olympic comments to reporters ring courageously. order that ﬁnal bottle of wine until closing. MEDIA CURRENTLY ENJOYING: I read all the daily and Sunday papers and most of the weekly and monthly mags too. A rooftop terrace for the summer at High Road House would be nice too. “I’m proud of it. whether or not they would personally choose to do so for religious reasons. Female athletes in Iran must cover up their muscles. believes that individual achievement can contribute to collective struggles for change. Campaign for Equality members have lost their jobs and received threatening telephone calls. “breakout athletic performances can inspire collective political activism. Laleh Seddigh has tested the limits of official tolerance. racing past the finish line only to begin again. W—Pattrice Jones I—Lina Ekstrand Member Me Habits of a Soho House Member MEMBER: Louise Plank LOCATION: High Road House. authorities routinely menace the campaign. The regime betrays its fear of this feminist groundswell by violently breaking up peaceful demonstrations and heavy-handedly persecuting a petition drive. rather than the petition itself.” It’s lucky. Originally from a potato farm in Wiltshire called Plank’s Potatoes. despite continued state repression. “I broke a taboo. It’s working. are the heart of a truly local process of internal community change. As for TV. Not quite the progression I had envisaged and thankfully Channel 5. Might Sara Khoshjamal. One recalls fans of Jackie Robinson spilling out of segregated seating to the chagrin of Southern racists. the only thing that keeps the women of Iran moving forward stronger than ever is hope hope for a better future and hope for change. locking up its organisers and shutting down its website on the pretext that the campaign threatens state security. Seddigh is the focus of a BBC documentary entitled Girl Racer. it’s been perfect the last two years. the feeling of freedom is born. “We are the greatest!” proclaimed the posters of the first African American organisation to use the black panther as a symbol of political power in 1965. The Change for Equality movement aims to collect one million Iranian signatures on a petition condemning discriminatory laws.” she told Der Spiegel. Seddigh has shown brash bravado in victory.Equality / Martial Arts Zirin. Fatima Geza Abdollahyan’s forthcoming feature documentary. profiles female Muslim athletes. girls and women throng the track to watch Laleh Seddigh race. Screaming female fans cling to the fences. FAVOURITE NIGHT IN THE HOUSE: I’ve got to have two choices here: Sneaky Peak for an adultonly night and Christmas Carols at the House for my family. Why should Iranian women be weak?” Like many Islamic feminists. just as Iranian women flocked to a Tehran observatory to monitor Ansari’s orbit around the earth. “I’m trying to prove that Iranian women have a lot to say. These one-on-one conversations. Do they use their platform to say something or are they content making a statement at the level of the symbolic?” In the context of state suppression of women’s voices. Another female motor-rally driver. speaking of her victory over male competitors.” The women’s movement in Iran is alive and thriving. “I think it provides hope. Somewhat protected by the wealth and influence of her family. I now live and work in Chiswick. Lively rallies in favour of women’s rights demonstrate that many women feel more empowered to demand their rights. When Seddigh won third place in her first race. According to Amnesty International.
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