The story of Iranian women’s rugby has been truly inspiring in recent years. Faramarz Beheshti’s remarkable film Salam Rugby has been shown around the world, and is still well worth catching if you get the chance.
Against all the odds, faced with the sort of obstacles that we cannot imagine in the west, women’s rugby has grown and developed in Iran. They even started playing international sevens in 2009, the IRB bending over backwards to allow them to play in the full body covering their religious rules demanded – an outfit that attracted a great deal of comment, much to the annoyance of the Iranian women who just wanted to be treated as rugby players.
And pretty good players they have proved to be. Despite everything, in the past three years they have won a third of the internationals they have played – a far better record than many more “liberal” and “modern” Asian nations – and finished 9th out of 12 in the last Asian championships in October.
But it now seems that they will not be able to better that record. According to today’s Globe and Mail - after initially banning their male coach, then forcing them to practice mainly indoors (only outdoors when no men could see them), restricting their access to funding or any official support – last month the axe finally fell. All women’s sport involving any form of contact is banned – even ski-ing is now off-limits for Iran’s women. It is a sad story that such brave women are being forced into a narrower and narrower world.
Of course, it has to be said that the west is hardly perfect when it comes to supporting women’s sport. The BBC failure to include any women in its shortlist for the UK’s Sports Personality of the Year award was the latest example. But less than three years ago New Zealand’s leading women’s rugby team was banned from using the main club ground because it was being “overused”… though junior men’s teams where still allowed to play on it! Only 10 years ago Australia’s women were refused any support from the ARU when the qualified for the World Cup (junior men’s teams were supported), and its not much longer ago that the women’s rugby was banned in many rugby playing countries. Attitudes to and comments about women’s rugby that are not a million miles away from those experienced by Iran’s women are by no means unheard of here – a glance at the comments section accompanying many articles and videos about women’s rugby show that. It is unfortunate for the Iranians that such people have somehow managed to get into a position to run their country.