September 17, 2021
After years of silence, a group of Iranian women athletes have finally been given an opportunity to tell their stories of sexual discrimination and violence.
On Monday, at 8:30 pm Tehran time, IranWire hosted the “Sports Room” event on Clubhouse, encouraging women to speak about their experiences. For close to two hours, they told their painful stories, many of them for the first time, from violent, predatory coaches and top sports managers abusing athletes to a well-known welfare official assaulting disabled girls.
In attendance were IranWire’s Aida Ghajar, Payam Younesipour and Amir Hossein Mirasmaili, journalist and women’s rights activist Asieh Amini, Shiva Amini, a former Iranian women’s national futsal player and currently a coach working in Italy, Rozita Aemeh-doost, who played for the Iranian national women’s table tennis team, and Shirin Shirzad, a former head coach and member of the Iranian women’s national wrestling team.
Aida Ghajar was first to raise the endemic issue of assault and rape of women athletes. Payam Younesipour spoke of how the media consistently censored news of these serious crimes, drawing on his experiences working with Iran’s Radio Javan and sports newspapers.
Giving one example, Younesipour said that in 2012, a female colleague working for Radio Javan’s Four Four Two posed as the mother of a teenage football player and secretly recorded a conversation with the director and coach at a football school. The coach invited her to his home for further guidance after asking questions about her private life. However, the radio’s monitoring department refused to allow the interview to be broadcast out of fears that it would “spread prostitution.”
Amir Hossein Miresmaeili spoke about his experience interviewing Golnar Vakil Gilani, the former president of the polo federation. In the interview, published in Etemad newspaper, Vakil Gilani described how Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the then Deputy Minister of Sports and Youth, had threatened to publish private photographs of her online and on Telegram. Golnar Vakil Gilani was forced to resign following Davarzani’s threats.
Rozita Aemeh-doost: Pornography Sent to Teenage Girls
“I am happy for this opportunity for we female athletes to talk,” said former national table tennis player Rozita Aemeh-doos, adding that she was worried about teenage girls starting out in sport, who she said were at particular risk.
“One example is that an employee at the national girls’ table tennis team camp sent pornographic videos to female athletes. The girls at the camps were 16 years old and up. Another example is that once I went to the team manager’s room to collect my salary. He told all the other players and coaches to leave and made me stay. He first started talking about the weather and then went on to really uncomfortable conversations.
“Unfortunately, whenever women athletes spoke out about rape or assault, we were stigmatized. Some people said we were making it up, others said we should leave and seek asylum.” She said the violence was endemic and far-reaching: sexual, but also psychological, both physical and verbal. “Women athletes are exposed to all kinds of violence,” she said. “When they tell us not to sit with a male athlete at the table at mealtimes, this is violence. Mandatory hijab is violence.
“Take note of the messages and comments people make on social media after these conversations. Some will ask: ‘why are you speaking now, after you’re no longer competing?’ They say I’m trying to find a way of leaving. But it’s just that we now have the opportunity to talk to you about what we went through.”
Shirin Shirzad: Video calls at 4am
Wrestler and wrestling coach Shirin Shirzad said one could talk about sexual violence and harassment against women athletes for hours. “I dare say that all Iranian national team female players in all sports have suffered sexual harassment at least once. I myself was the head of the women’s national team and I saw this every day, every hour.
“I was also told that I was speaking out as a way of getting asylum outside Iran,” she said. “These allegations are funny since I have only talked about one incident out of a thousand. I am being honest when I say we are regularly attacked by the opposite sex. Unfortunately, Iranian female athletes cannot speak when they are in Iran.”
She said in August she had taken part in a webinar hosted by the National Olympic Committee. “The webinar was about sexual violence. It is telling that one of the speakers was one of the main individuals to have severely harassed Iranian female athletes in recent years.”
Shirzad described the difficulty of speaking out, and how society has normalized the suppression of women. ”No one wanted to hear from us, no one can help. As a woman, when you go out with your husband, if someone asks why your hair is not covered, your husband will probably condemn you, not the man who pointed it out.”
Shirzad said it was even difficult to support colleagues who had been assaulted. “One of our coaches, who was married, told me one day that one of the most famous coaches at the wrestling federation kept calling her at 4am. She told me several times that his calls were disrupting her life. I told the president of the federation, I told the managers at the time, but I was the one who was reprimanded.”
“When you have a video call with a coach at 4am, you know he isn’t wearing many clothes. This is just one small incident of many. When I was expelled from the wrestling federation, I went to one of the managers. I expected her to listen to me. But she said: ‘you destroyed Iranian wrestling because you started women’s wrestling. She told me she knew a female wrestler who became pregnant by a male national team coach and that it was my fault.”
Shiva Amini: Directors of Football Federation Extorted Money from LGBT+ Girls
“When you are an Iranian girl — not just an athlete — you definitely understand the meaning of sexual assault and violence,” Shiva Amini, a former member of the women’s national futsal team, said at the Clubhouse event. “You will never be supported on your the path pursuing what you love; you are not only alone but you also have to fight unbelievable obstacles. In Italian football, I found that a player can train without any stress from the club’s general manager wanting to have sex with her. In Iran, we are always looking for a sponsor. We had to talk to rich companies and their bosses. There has not been a single time when someone was willing to support the team and did not have a sexual demand. It is not possible to work with the football federation and not be taunted or insulted at every turn. Men in the football federation expect sex from you to start even the most basic business. We got to a point where we just gave up.”
Shiva Amini also spoke about Iran’s LGBT+ sports community: “There was an official at the federation who abused LGBT+ girls. He took iPhones and jewelry from them as bribes to prevent him from revealing information about their relationships or make them go to medical centers for gender tests.”
Asieh Amini: Where Have We All Been All These Years?
“When my friends were talking, I began shaking all over my body,” journalist and human rights activist Asieh Amini told the Clubhouse audience. “I wanted to talk, and to hear more.”
She described sexual assault and violence against women, especially in sports, as a hidden narrative in Iranian society. “We are caught in vicious cycle that includes everything from the hierarchy of political power to education to oversight of social groups, the media and the judiciary.” To break this cycle, she said the only lever at women’s disposal, and the only way to shift the situation even a little, is by telling their stories.
“We need an education system that recognizes the rights of every human being,” Amini said.”In fact, the education system must make it clear to people that, by law, they are the only ones who have authority over their own bodies. Not even their parents [have this authority].”
She highlighted how dire the situation is in Iran by drawing attention to other parts of the world, describing the attack in Norway on a 17-year-old girl by a well-known political figure in one of Norway’s most popular political parties. “This issue quickly became a crisis in the country and the media covered it regardless of their political positions. In those days, when I had just been in Norway for two or three years, my Norwegian friends asked me what I thought about it. I told them I was very impressed and shocked, and that I realized what superior laws they have.
“But I just want to know: does the election campaign have no role to play in this issue? Believe me, all those people looked at me in protest and in surprise and asked: ‘what does that have to do with this? I knew there were some supporters of that party in our group. This is what law means, what education means.
“My question is not where have these girls been all these years? My question is: where have we all been? Why haven’t we said anything? A society that claims to promote women’s rights has done very little.”
Fars Welfare Department Director Raped Disabled Girls
“I was the coach and lifeguard at the Yadegar Pool,” said Elham Nikpay, a former swimming and lifeguard instructor who trained Iranian disabled people for years. “The pool was built using a budget for services for the disabled, but disabled people were only allowed to use the pool one day a week for one hour, and at the worst time of day. When I protested, they said, “Ms. Nikpay, we are financially exploiting the situation, and you do not need to care so much for the disabled.” The board had its own specific requests for children with disabilities and children being looked after by the welfare organization so that they could use the pool. The head of the Fars Province Board for Disabled People was Mr. Mohammad Hossein Golriz Khatami. He forced the children to work for him when he gave parties, and repeatedly sexually assaulted them. This was what the children themselves told me. They explained that Mr. Golriz Khatami told them he had a guest on a particular night and to come and help his wife. He said at night, ‘sleep here and go home tomorrow.’ This night was truly horrible for these children. The children did not speak about it. I knew a girl named Eliza, one of the disabled children receiving welfare care. Her burnt body was found at the bottom of a well. Do you expect these children to protest?”
Payam Younesipour said Mohammad Hossein Khatami had a number of financial interests that swayed his decision-making as head of Fars Province’s disability services. “Mr. Golriz Khatami, who Ms. Nikpay mentioned, has been appointed as the CEO or Chairman of the Board of Directors of nine companies since September 2020: Shiraz Urban and Cultural Donors Association, Amin Security Donors Association of Fars Province, Fars Autism Charity Association, Rasoul Shiraz Educational Research Hospital, Hazrat Fatemeh Heart Charity, Shiraz Association for Support of Patients, Fars Province Housing Donors Association, Behzisti Charity Shiraz and the Welfare Charity Rehabilitation and Cultural Institute.”
Bitter Memories and Hidden Harassment
Shirin Shirzad said she had faced harsh responses once she spoke out about the sexual violence she had experienced. “Even my family cut off contact with me,” she said Shirin Shirzad. “I was asked: why do I want to talk? What reason is there for me, who has now left Iran, to speak out? Not a single person in Iran supported me. Some people asked, ‘why didn’t you speak out while still in Iran?’ Even if I had, who could I complain to? When I first spoke out, a group of female athletes asked me why my best friends, who didn’t even have government jobs and who were not athletes, failed to support me, even by liking one of my Instagram stories.”
She quoted Mohammad Reza Yazdani-Khorram, who served as both the president for the Iranian Volleyball Federation and the Iranian Wrestling Federation. “We had the revolution so that our daughters would stop wrestling. Now you cause problems for to us with your protests.”
Rozita Aemeh-doost gave her view of the media’s role in helping (or hindering) the situation: “Ms. Amini is right when she says: ‘Where have we and the media been all this time?’ I think cyberspace and social media helped us a lot. We talked — and then we were kicked out. We protested and then we were deported. The last time I spoke out, my mother came under pressure. She is a teacher, and after my remarks she was warned by the security department of the Ministry of Education.”
“At the Asian Games in Vietnam, we defeated Japan for the first time [in football],” Shiva Amini recalled. “After the game, we waited for praise. Our guardian gathered all the sweating children and told them a cleric was going to talk to them. Imagine their excitement. And then this man says, ‘I have always been against women’s sports. I have argued about it many times, but I have not succeeded. You were running at every minute of the game, and men watched your bodies as you did. They were looking at you.’
“At that moment, we hated our bodies.”
“Some people associate abuse of power and sexual violence with sexual violence in relationships only,” Asieh Amini said as the Clubhouse event came to a close. “There may be sexual violence in relationships, but this is different. This is about abuse of power being equated with violence. It’s about using power for sexual intentions, for putting pressure on someone, and many other versions of power abuse. In Iran, our laws are flawed, so we have no way to apply legal pressure on these people who violate us.”