By Payam Yunesipour
January 7, 2019
Sara Mostafanejad was born in 1980 to a mother who had been a national javelin throw champion before the Islamic Revolution and a father who was a veteran football referee. They lived in the northern city of Sari and soon realized that their daughter, like the rest of the Mostafanejad family, was very much into sports.
Things went smoothly until 2006, when Sara Mostafanejad’s life changed. She had tried almost all sports open to women in the Islamic Republic and decided to try bodybuilding after her brother suggested it. “Not only did my family have no problems with the new field that I had chosen, they even encouraged me,” she told IranWire in late 2018. “They wanted me to choose my own way.” Today she is a bodybuilding trainer and works for a company that makes supplements for competitors.
Mostafanejad is now one of the best-known Iranian sportswomen on social media. Googling her name brings up an avalanche of photographs of a woman with a taut and trim body and well-built muscles.
“Some might imagine that people do not treat a woman with an athletic body in a proper manner,” Mostafanejad said, reflecting on her early years as a professional bodybuilder. “I am not saying that I have not encountered negative reactions, but never at a level that would upset me. Most men and women either encourage and compliment me or are surprised and ask me questions like how many years I have been doing this, how many hours a day I exercise or what my diet is. The encouragements were so much that they motivated me more.”
Praise be! Praise be!
She smiled as she referred to a catchphrase that Iranians use when they want to wish somebody well. “’Praise be!’, ‘Praise be!’ I hear this a lot in the showroom for bodybuilding supplements, in the club or on the street,” she said. “It is very dear to me that people come to my shows and ask for souvenir pictures of me.”
It is only natural that any Iranian sportsperson would expect three stages in his or her professional life: Practice, competition and a progression to joining the national team. Like many other Iranian sportswomen, Mostafanejad went through rigorous training and practice, but when it came to the competition phase she was stopped cold. Based on an unwritten but strictly enforced law in Iran, bodybuilding is not open to women.
She was one of the first women in Iran who started bodybuilding with the dream of making it to the championship stand. In 2015, to fulfill her dream, she financed her expenses to travel to Moscow. Not only did she not receive funding from any of Iran’s sporting authorities, she did not have any credentials and was not endorsed by Iran’s Finesses Organization. She went to try her luck anyway. However, Iranian officials used their power to keep her off the stage and the referees informed her that they had been told by Iran that she could not appear on stage.
Sara Mostafanejad remembers this as her worst memory, a memory that she says could have been one of the best in her life. “I was just about to get on the stage in an international competition,” she said. “It was the 2015 Russian Bodybuilding Championships. When I got next to the stage I was told that I could not go up there. I asked why but I got no convincing answer. They would not even let me climb one step. I returned to Iran and was arrested in no time. Until today I had not told the media about this.”
Keep your Body under Wraps
Mostafanejad says that many media outlets called her and asked her for interviews but she refused to say one word. “It was not just about me,” Sara told IranWire. “My family was frightened as well. I was under arrest for seven days. You know on what charge? ‘You have broken a barrier,” they told me. ‘In our religion women are forbidden to show their bodies to men and you knew this. Had we not arrested you today, tomorrow the rest of the women in this country would rush toward bodybuilding and international competitions.’ They unequivocally told me that they wanted to let other women know that bodybuilding was forbidden for them. For this, I spent seven days in jail.”
Mostafanejad spent the first three days at the detention center and the last four days at Qarchak Women’s Prison in Varamin near Tehran. When she talks about her days in jail, her voice sounds extremely sad. “The questionings were not respectful,” she said. “No, they showed no respect at all. Even in the movies I had not seen anything like it. The first three days I just cried. They had thrown me in solitary and I could not even meet anybody. When I was transferred to Varamin Prison, the warden apologized to me for putting me in the same ward as ‘murderers, smugglers and prisoners for life.’ But, well, he had no choice in the matter. For four days and nights I did not close my eyes and did not sleep. The warden gave me the keys to the gym so I could go there and exercise. In those four days I tried to interest women there in the gym and in sports.”
She says she is not sure who prevented her from going on stage in Russia. But she no longer cares. She doesn’t care either about the rumors that emerged afterward. “It is no longer important to me,” she said. “It’s not worthwhile to think about something that is finished and gone. You work hard for 10 years, you tire yourself out with months of heavy exercises, you go through a diet and right at the last moment you are not allowed to go on stage. All these efforts are for a quarter to half an hour of show. But suddenly everything is lost. I don’t like to look back.”
However, she does think about two people who helped her. “After the arrest and jail my days were not good,” she said, “until Ms. Sahar Makhzan and Mr. Hossein Rajabi helped me just like they were my older siblings. I was greatly afraid and I was not even sure that I would want to continue on my way. But these two helped me regain serenity and also became my sponsors.”