These Women Are Reclaiming a Male-Dominated National Sport in Iran

A small but increasing number of Iranian women are challenging patriarchal attitudes that underlie the ban on women’s participation in Zoorkhaneh.

With quiet and unflinching concentration, she sways the heavy iron bow from side to side. The rhythmic and unyielding movement of her arms is controlled yet powerful. Magnetic, even. The bow’s dangling coins unleash a euphoric symphony of chiming sounds just to keep up with her. 

Rayeheh Mozafariyan is an athlete and activist who practices Pahlevani and Zoorkhaneh, a 2000-year-old Iranian sport originally practised by warriors. Commonly referred to simply as Zoorkhaneh, it is a combination of mixed martial arts, wrestling and calisthenics. It has a rigorous training regimen that incorporates exercises with an iron bow or the kabbadeh, and the mil, a conical wooden club. 

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The “house of strength” which shares the same name as the sport, Zoorkhaneh is the facility where athletes perform the rotating exercises, called charkidan.

Zoorkhaneh rituals are rooted in values of strength and chivalry. Over time, the sport gained increasing religious significance. 

“I like this sport because of its politeness, how it demands respect from others, and the religious atmosphere it [has]. There are many sports that exemplify strength, and those who choose this sport practice politeness [and] forgiveness,” Zoorkhaneh athlete Fatemeh Esbati told VICE World News. Esbati hails from a conservative background and grew up without a gym in her neighborhood. 

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Fatemeh Esbati with a kabbadeh at a park.The kabbadeh is a bow made of iron with metal rings and coin-like pieces hanging on its body, it is used to perform Zoorkhaneh exercises.

But Mozafariyan and Esbati have to fight for their right to continue playing the sport. In Iran, the country’s athletics regulations bar women’s participation in the religious sport because of perceptions that Zoorkhaneh facilities are sacred and should abide by strict gender segregation rules. 

In 2020, footage of Mozafariyan and her teammates went viral and spurred condemnation from male athletes and religious groups. The backlash led to the Zoorkhaneh Sports Federation banning women from participating in all of the sports’ rituals. 

“I wanted to do Zoorkhaneh rituals because everyone was saying this is a national religious sport. It’s the sport of our ancestors, the Iranians. When we told them that women were Iranians as well, they said, ‘No it’s a man's sport,’” Mozafariyan said.

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Rayehe Mozafarian performing warm-up exercises before practice with a mil, a conical wooden club.

Undeterred by the ban, Mozafariyan and Esbati continue to practice the sport at a local park. Mozafariyan is also campaigning and working towards legally challenging the federation’s decision by arguing that the ban has no religious standing. 

Fatemeh Esbati

Fatemeh Esbati practicing with her coach Babak Shadman at a park.

The federation’s appeasement of religious hardliners could curb global opportunities for the growth and recognition of the national sport. The exclusion of female athletes could make it more difficult for Iran to register in international championships, and the void created by a longstanding ban could allow other countries that also practice the sport such as Iraq, Azerbaijan and Turkey to take the lead.

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The “miandar” or the mid-conductor is the leader of the Zoorkhaneh session, who performs at the center of the gowd (the sunken pit in the zoorkhaneh). Athletes follow the Miandar and perform push ups on planks known as takht-e-shena.

Faezeh Hashemi, former president of the Islamic Federation for Women's Sport,  advised Mozafariyan to consider turning to social media to mount opposition to the ban. 

“What can be done is spreading the word on social media and talking about it, keeping it alive. You shouldn’t let it die,” she said.

Sarah Eslamiyeh contributed to reporting.