When Rayeheh Mozafarian talks about Varzeshe Pahlavani, her eyes light up.
The 37-year-old lives in Tehran, Iran, where she practices the centuries-old sport. She is one of many Iranian women who want to officially participate but are not allowed to do so. So, she’s embarked on a campaign to try to change that.
Varzeshe Pahlavani dates back more than 2,000 years to what was then the Persian Empire.
“This art of Pahlavani runs like a thread through the history of Iran,” said Khashayar Azad, who is based in Sydney, Australia, and teaches the sport.
“There have been various waves of invasions and conquests and the building and falling of empires and so on,” he said, “but one thing they have had in common throughout the long history of Iran and Persian culture has been Pahlavani as a art form. ”
Pahlavani combines sports with rhythmic music in a place called the zoorkhanehwhich literally translates as “fortress house”.
The athletes usually form a circle in a pit and raise two large wooden sticks above their heads and rotate them in circular motions.
The men then swing an iron bow back and forth and perform what is known as the her nowsimilar to a push up.
According to Azad, the first step to mastering Varzeshe Pahlavani is to let go of the ego.
For this reason, for example, the hole in the zoorkhaneh it plunges lower than the ground, to emphasize modesty and humility.
“It is the art of developing and cultivating spiritual strength and physical strength (in) equal measure,” he said.
But what has not always been the same in this tradition is the exclusion of women from exercising in the zoorkhaneh or mingle with men.
“This is a national sport. That means it belongs to all Iranians, not just men.”
“This is a national sport,” Mozafarian said from his home in Tehran, “that means it belongs to all Iranians, not just men.”
Want to help women access zoorkhaneh and be able to form their own teams. But doing so has been a challenge.
Mozafarian said she has heard all kinds of excuses from male officials and athletes who want to keep women out of the sport.
“For example, one thing they tell me,” he said, “is that this is too hard on women and it will make their bodies too muscular and masculine.”
“I tell them to mind their own business,” he added. “I remind them how women carry a baby for nine months and give birth, no problem.”
He even met with religious officials and said that, in fact, they are not the ones standing in the way. They even issued a fatwa —or religious edict— leaving the door open to the participation of women.
The most intense pushback came from a small but vocal group of purists.
To get around the obstacles, Mozafarian took her campaign online, posting about Pahlavani on an Instagram page called Zan va Zoorkhaneh, or Woman and Zoorkhaneh.
He has received videos and photos of women and girls practicing the sport at home or in quiet corners of parks. What was surprising, she explained, was that many of them were receiving coaching from their fathers, brothers or husbands, which shows that the men in their lives support their participation in the sport.
Mozafarian has also given interviews to the media and shares some videos of women practicing Pahlavani at home.
“These photos of women holding the wooden sticks and practicing Pahlavani and playing the music that accompanies the sport,” she said, “all of which are helping to break this long-standing taboo on women’s participation.”
Although Mozafarian has been unable to persuade leaders to allow women to have their own teams and participate, she said recent protests that began in September against restrictions on women’s freedoms in Iran have helped her cause.
“The protests are like a wake-up call,” she said, “a reminder to men that women in Iran will not stop demanding their rights, no matter how long it takes.
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