Iran Cracks Down On Champion Swimmer Simply for Being a Woman – Watch How She’s Fighting Back


In June 2013, Iranian swimmer Elham Asghari was denied the recognition of her record for 20-kilometer open water swimming in the Caspian Sea. The officials at the Ministry of Sports explained that her costume did not match the standards prescribed by Sharia law. In the absence of a set standard for what qualifies as Islamic compliance, the denial to register Elham's record is not only arbitrary, but grossly unfair. Unfair to a woman who swims in a three-kilogram full-body suit and a headscarf to avoid precisely this sort of discrimination.

In Iran, women are mandated to cover their bodies and heads at all time, prohibited from entering stadiums, and allowed to compete only in "women only" events. Women are also banned from entering in swimming competitions. This is presumably in accordance with Islam, or rather 'Islamic-ness.' Elham Asgheri not only chose an unconventional hobby in competitive swimming, but tried to pursue it without overstepping any Sharia lines. She once suffered injuries from propellers of a police boat trying to stop her from swimming.

For the swim in question, Elham took the precaution of swimming in a beach reserved for women, while swimming fully covered. Along with adding drag and weighing six pounds, the suit hurt her physically and compromised her efficiency. After overcoming the physical challenges and setting a new record, she was rewarded by the Ministry of Sport and the Iranian Swimming Federation refusing to register her record. The grounds for refusal were that, irrespective of whether her suit was Islamic or not, registering her record itself would be contrary to Sharia and Islam, because "the feminine characteristics of her body were visible when she came out of the water."

One need not delve into the cultural relativism, individual beliefs and morality regarding the act of covering and religious diktat. What this incident shows, is that there is an administrative system in place which has the power to decide upon the fate of an athlete, without even being required to present a real case, or explanation. Sanctifying this sort of blatant discrimination against her as a sportswoman by using religious laws is an unfair and clever move, since there lies no appeal before the court of God. 

The incident also shows how easy it is for the officials to sidestep Elham's talent and negate her victory by making a simple and absolute justification –that her anatomy as seen through her costume had revealed the specifics of her gender; an offence that could surely not go unpunished. 

In an age when swimmers employ the use of sharkskin fabric swimsuits and when excellence is the primary motivation, witnessing a swimmer of Elham's stature being bogged down by the requirements of Islamic-ness and denied recognition is a cruel paradox. This begs the question of who defines what constitues Islamic apparrel, in the absence of a set dress code. It is the interest of an oppressive regime to not specify, so that the mark of Islamic approval may be distributed and denied on a whim. In Elham's case, it seems that the whim was to ensure that her strength in confronting and overcoming her struggles is not recognised and encouraged. And not emulated for sure. 

It is interesting to observe how Elham's case is contrary to that of Manal Omar in 2007, when she was discriminated against in Oxford, England, for swimming in an Islamic style suit out of choice. This makes me believe that it isn't about the swimsuit at all. It's about certain elements refusing to come to terms with women's autonomy in swimming against the tide. 

You can watch Elham's video message to her supporters here, and sign a petition which asks for International Swimming Federation put pressure on the Iranian Swimming Federation and "register the record Elham Asghari rightfully earned."