Tackling the World’s Toughest Test of Endurance, While Wearing Hijab

An increasing number of Iranian women like Shirin Gerami are participating in sports traditionally reserved for men

Shirin Gerami competes in the 2016 IRONMAN World Championship triathlon on October 8, 2016 in Kailua Kona, Hawaii.

Photographer: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for Ironman

To compete at the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Hawaii this month, Shirin Gerami went through the arduous training regimes followed by the other competitors.

But she faced an additional challenge. The first woman to represent Iran in one of the world’s toughest endurance tests would have to wear an outfit that met the Islamic Republic’s dress code while abiding by race guidelines and not slowing her down too much.

It was well worth the effort, she said in an interview five days after crossing the finishing line on Oct. 8. Representing Britain, where Gerami has lived for 12 years, “would not affect or change anything,” she said. Competing for Iran, though, might “open the door to women within Iran or in similar cultures to participate” in a broader range of sports internationally, she said.

Her achievement comes as an increasing number of Iranian women are participating in sports traditionally reserved for men. In August, Kimia Alizadeh, 18, became the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze in taekwondo in Rio de Janeiro; women have also competed in Iranian car races.

Still, female athletes -- and women in other walks of life -- face opposition from conservative authorities in Iran, a clash that over the past few months has reawakened debate over whether women should even cycle in public. After women cyclists took to the streets to support a government-backed anti-pollution initiative called “car-free Tuesdays,” hardliners called their behavior “indecent” and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he disapproved.

In Iran, women are required to cover their hair and the contours of their body as a sign of modesty. Though the dress code has relaxed over the past three decades -- evolving from billowy, dark fabric to stylish coats and colorful scarves -- women are still stopped by occasional patrols enforcing conduct in public spaces.

President Hassan Rouhani, a centrist expected to stand for re-election in May, has encouraged women to be more active in politics and business. But only 13 percent of Iranian women are considered active in the workforce, estimates Vahideh Negin, the Ministry of Labor’s adviser on women affairs. That’s the case even though the majority of university students are female, and the number of working women with a postgraduate degree is three times that of men.

Gerami’s competitions have been mentioned in local media and Rouhani tweeted a photograph of her holding an Iranian flag after she first represented the nation in 2013, using the hashtag “GenderEquality.”

Gerami, 27, took her bike for a short practice ride on the Hawaii race route a few days before the event. Strong winds nearly blew her off the road, she said, causing her to question whether she was up to the challenge of representing a nation.

The Ironman is made up of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and finally a 26.2-mile run. Athletes occasionally collapse from exhaustion while others have crawled across the finish line. Gerami finished in 13 hours 11 minutes, placed 1,864 out of the 2,207 men and women who completed the race.

Gerami, who took up triathlons while at university in the U.K. and left a job in venture philanthropy to focus on the sport, said she worked with a professional athlete to come up with a clothing solution that would be practical, and acceptable to race organizers and Iranian authorities alike. It was approved by the Iran Triathlon Federation days before the race.

Her accomplishment, and what she wore to achieve it, is also part of a wider debate over sports and the Islamic covering for women -- or hijab -- that occasionally makes headlines.

Current U.S. champion chess player Nazi Paikidze has called for a boycott of next year’s women’s world championship in Tehran to protest Iranian law requiring local or visiting women to wear a headscarf. Her stance, like others before it, has drawn support on social media from those who see the rules as infringing basic freedoms, as well as criticism by others who argue that boycotts set back women eager to improve in their fields and compete internationally.

Gerami prefers to focus on the rewards of competition. And with endurance races, she says, covering more of the body has its advantages: kept wet the suit helps lower body temperatures.

“What’s important is to reap the benefits of sports,” she said. “That’s not defined by what you wear.”

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