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She felt like giving her life in the final match, like Arash the Archer, the hero from Iranian mythology who was destroyed after putting all his strength into a single arrow shot to determine the borders of the Persian empire. Kimia Alizadeh, the Iranian taekwondoka who won an Olympic medal at the age of 18, had reached the final of the World Taekwondo Championships in South Korea this June — a first for a female Iranian athlete.
But serious injuries — swollen knees that “would have made an ordinary person unable to walk”, as well as wrist, elbow and ankle pains — meant winning gold looked impossible. Her tearful trainer tried and failed to convince her that she might be permanently injured if she insisted on fighting the Ivory Coast’s Ruth Gbagbi.
Alizadeh fought and lost, taking home the silver medal, but she does not regret her decision. “I thought, if I were to fail, it should happen during the game but not by withdrawal,” she says. We are meeting at the headquarters of Iran’s Taekwondo Federation in a leafy, affluent neighbourhood of Tehran. Alizadeh, who is over 6ft tall, still wears support bandages on her left wrist and elbow. “Everyone has feelings inside,” she says. “Emotionally, I would have been more hurt if I had given up without trying.”
She smiles bitterly as she recalls how she spent two weeks in hospital after fainting on her return from the championship. The extent of the physical damage is not yet clear, but she will need surgery at some point.
Alizadeh has fought hard to become a sporting champion in a country that does not win many plaudits for its record on women’s rights, and has been struggling with the clash between tradition and modernity for more than a century. Her success has been remarkable. Iran’s rulers now invoke her name in an attempt to appeal to female voters. During the presidential election campaign this May, the president, Hassan Rouhani, who has called Alizadeh “my daughter”, mentioned her and two other female athletes by their first names. After his victory, however, he failed to appoint any female ministers to his cabinet, angering women who had voted for him.
Athletes like Alizadeh are emboldening Iranian girls and young women to push the boundaries of personal freedom. Iranian women have long been vulnerable to various forms of suppression and restriction — exerted by their own families as well as by wider society and the political and religious elites — that, in effect, reduce them to second-class citizens. Domestic violence is common, and women have fewer legal rights in marriage, divorce and over the custody of children, as well as weaker inheritance rights. They are sometimes banned outright from public spaces — last month, Iranian women were barred from watching their national football team play Syria in Tehran, while female Syrian fans were free to attend. “Iranian society demands responsibility from girls but does not feel responsible [for] their demands and wishes,” says one sociologist and psychologist who does not want to be named.
Alizadeh did not come from a privileged background. Her mother is a housewife and her father stitches embroidery on tablecloths — and on her taekwondo black belt. But she wished “to live a different life, not like others”, she says. When she was seven, she went to the only gym in the family’s middle-class neighbourhood in the city of Karaj, near Tehran. It offered only taekwondo classes, and while the martial art was not exactly her passion, practising it proved to be a revelation. Within a year she was a national champion and has since won eight national medals, including six golds. Her instructor, Mahroo Komrani, was quick to spot Alizadeh’s extraordinary talent and convinced her parents to support it. “Mahroo, who is still my instructor, has had the biggest role in my success,” she says.
International fame came at the age of 15, after she won her first international gold medal at the World Junior Taekwondo Championships in Taipei in 2014. A second gold came the same year at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games, followed by a bronze at the 2015 World Taekwondo Championships in Chelyabinsk, Russia, where she defeated two-time British Olympic gold medallist Jade Jones in the quarter-finals.
Back then, she says, she didn’t think much about girls of her own age or what impact her career might have on them. “I was simply very happy that I proved myself to my instructor and parents and could come back home victorious.” But from the age of 16, Alizadeh started making history. Her six international medals were more than any female athlete from Iran had ever achieved. At the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, she won bronze — the first medal won by an Iranian woman since the country first entered the games in 1948. “After my first international medal, I realised I could do things that no one else has done before,” she says. “Too many medals were being missed in women’s sports and I thought I was able to achieve them. My medals have helped kids believe in themselves, and families are more supportive [of girls playing sports] now.”
For more than a decade after the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, women and girls were denied access to international sporting competitions. But for the Asian Games in Beijing in 1990, the authorities, under increasing public pressure, reluctantly allowed women to participate in sports that would not prevent them from covering their hair and body. Initially, only shooting was allowed, but the number of permissible sports for women has grown to include more than 20 fields, including chess, martial arts, fencing and kayaking.
Equal status as athletes with men and boys remains a long way off, while the obligation to wear the hijab rules out many sports. Another problem is parents’ reluctance to let their daughters pursue sports professionally.
Among the younger generation, however, attitudes are changing rapidly, thanks to widespread access to the internet. Tech-savvy youth use social media extensively and even the authorities acknowledge that curbing appetite for progress among young people is almost impossible. Meanwhile, thanks to a peaceful but determined women’s rights movement, women now occupy more university places than men and continue to demand senior jobs and more freedom.
Roya Kamali, an Islamic studies teacher at girls’ middle and high schools in both poor and affluent areas of Tehran, says the priorities of younger generations have changed — especially of young women. Iranian girls want to enjoy life, she says, and they practise religion as a personal matter, much as women in secular societies do. There is an increasing reluctance to allow the exploitation of Islam for social control or political and business interests. “Today’s girls are more honest, with little hypocrisy,” she says. “They cannot bear gender discrimination; they want to speak freely and be seen and heard as human beings rather than females.”
Romina, a 15-year-old girl from a middle-class family, hopes to become an architect. She says her priorities are her education, getting a job and earning money. “I will get married, but [only] after becoming a successful woman. I don’t want to be dependent on my father or husband,” she says.
Other girls conclude that their dreams can only be achieved outside Iran. Shaghayegh, 18, is planning to go to Ukraine to study medicine, partly because she does not want to continue wearing a headscarf in public.
Alizadeh has mixed views. She says she would like to study physiotherapy or sports pathology at university, and wants her fame to go down in history — but she also champions moral values. “I would like to help kids, in particular child labourers who are breadwinners of their families,” she says.
Her own childhood was not easy. While she was in the fourth year of elementary school, her family moved to a satellite town outside Karaj. That meant she had to travel by bus for two hours to get to the gym and her English language classes, and another two hours to get home. Often she would not start her homework until 10pm.
Authorities exempted her from attending high school classes, provided she took her exams on time. “When I was in the second grade of high school, I had only 14 days to study for the exams and slept perhaps only six hours altogether those days,” she says. The coincidence of exams and sporting competitions once meant she had to repeat a school year.
“I suffered a lot for being the first one,” she says. “I have sacrificed a lot to open the way.” She admits she was tempted many times to give up. At the Rio Olympics, for example, “expectations were high” and her feeling of responsibility weighed heavy. “I put a towel on my face and told God that I do not want to play any more. I could not bear more pressure,” she says. “But then I told myself that today is a new day. I beat my Thai rival after being five points behind her, then defeated my Swedish rival and won the historic Olympic bronze medal.”
Whenever she competes, Alizadeh wears a small brown leather purse round her neck that contains a verse from the Koran, some handwritten wishes and a green strip of cloth, blessed at the golden shrine of Reza — the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims — in north-east Iran.
“In my wishes on that paper, I had hoped to win the Olympics and World [Championship] medals,” she says. “My wishes have not changed but turned into achievable goals. My main wish from childhood has been to go to space and travel from one planet to another. I will definitely go to Mars one day.”
Additional reporting by Monavar Khalaj