Squash in Iran: Hijab Stories

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

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Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

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Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

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Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

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Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.

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