Iran’s sportswomen face bullying and prosecution for following their dreams. So some have taken to the streets to vent their athletic anger. Meet the parkour women of Iran – Persia's free-running vanguard
L ahijan is a small, bucolic city on the shores of the Caspian Sea. It’s known for its rolling, leafy hills, tea, and, like most Persian cities, an ancient history rich of kings and battles.
But there’s another battle being fought out on the streets of Lahijan. And while the bloodshed has been toned town, it could have far greater an effect for the future of Iran’s most endangered people: its women.
Gilda is a 20-year-old student from the city. She doesn’t consider herself a warrior. But there are few soldiers who could perform the physical feats she does each day, in Lahijan’s parks and public spaces. Gilda is one of several hundred women across Iran who have taken up the sport of parkour, known worldwide as‘free-running’. The concept is to tackle obstacles in the everyday environment – walls, windows, steps – while carrying as much momentum as possible. Think gymnastics-meets-martial-arts, and you’re not far off. Gilda learnt about the sport from satellite TV, which is illegal but widely watched in Iran. Remember that opening chase scene in Casino Royale? That’s parkour in action.
Iranian men face enough hurdles. The women face two, far larger, others. Women are officially allowed to practise sports in the deeply conservative country (except boxing and wrestling). But Iran’s moral code forbids them to wear anything considered‘immodest’, which throws most athletic pursuits into the impossible. Take, for example, Elham Asghari – a prodigious swimmer who cranked out a 20km swim across the Caspian in eight hours, only to have her record torn up by the deputy sports minister, who claimed that he could see the ‘“feminine features” of her body as she rose from the water.
When Gilda practices parkour she has to wear a headscarf and a manto, a traditional Iranian tunic.“You have to worry about getting your manto caught on things and making you fall, so you can’t move quite as fast as boys,” she says.“But we have no other choice.”
Clothes aren’t even the worst of Gilda’s fears. She faces hassle and bullying from male competitors almost daily. And women fear they could fall foul of Iran’s feared basiji, a network of volunteer morality police.“(They could) accuse us of copying a Western fad,” she says. “We could also get in trouble for practising sports outside designated facilities.”
Thankfully, parkour is all about guile, speed and agility. Born on the streets of Paris the sport, whose name derives from the French term parcours du combattant, a military obstacle course, parkour stresses a freedom of expression, movement and synergy with one’s local surroundings be they the concrete curves of a car park or verdant, suburban gardens.“Obstacles are found everywhere,” said parkour’s spiritual founder David Belle,“and in overcoming them we nourish ourselves.”
In Iran, those obstacles run deep.
“In parkour, manequals
woman,” Mohammad Javidi, parkour