Sport is a Window Which Allows us to Glimpse into the Deeper Realities Within a Society

Uniting Voices Worldwide to Eliminate Violence Against Women 2020

A Discussion and Call to Action on the Pandemic’s Impact on Women and Girls

November 24, 2020

Soolmaz Abooali, Ph.D., conflict resolution scholar, published author, lecturer, and US national and world-champion athlete in traditional karate.

Thanks to Women’s Freedom Forum for their continued efforts in organizing events which enable us, as speakers, to amplify the voices of those who should be heard.

One of the unique abilities of sport is that it acts as a window into what society looks like – into the good and the bad. During this unprecedented year, sport has continued to fulfill this role, even in the absence of regularly scheduled games and the usual format in which we’re used to watching them. Within the sport space, lack of access is a constant theme, only exacerbated by the pandemic.

To provide a brief context, for sportswomen who actually do get paid to compete in elite sport, the norm is low salaries, short-term or part-time contracts, lack of written contracts altogether, and poor working conditions and opportunities.

Such discrepancies between sportswomen and sportsmen have played out in several ways during the pandemic. As examples, women’s leagues resumed several months after men’s leagues while the latter got to play with the same rules as before and with the added bonus of regular COVID-19 testing. Women teams had to finance their access to equipment while also having to maintain their job as athletes through keeping in shape, recording performance numbers, and official participating in team meetings.

But, this isn’t a game of tit for tat. It’s about an ingrained inequality that continues and is exacerbated in tough times. And historically speaking what have women done in tough times? They’ve demonstrated resilience by giving back and by pushing back.

Females athletes from around the globe have offered their many talents to others. From launching training videos to help the general public stay fit during quarantine, to volunteering at hospitals with covid patients, to switching back into the medical profession as nurses and physicians because of the pandemic, female athletes are giving back.

As an Iranian-American, I take special interest in sports and the role of athletes in Iran. Although Iranian sportswomen have a hard time making a career out of their sport talent particularly during the pandemic, they also have the added weight of pushing back against a system of thinking and policies which prevent their freedom of expression, opportunities, and livelihood. In fact, the institutionalized system of misogyny which they face in Iran is the real covid.

Parisa Farshidi, for example, is a Taekwondo competitor and medalist in the Asian Games, and Kimia Alizadeh is the first female Iranian Olympic medalist in Taekwondo, both applied for asylum. Ms. Alizadeh poignantly stated, “Let me finally introduce my previously censored identity. I’m one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran. I had to wear whatever I was told to wear; I had to say whatever I was told to say. They [the regime] even claimed my medals and victories because of their oppressive dress code and hijab. They attributed my successes to their management and tact.”

These sportswomen, whether they seek asylum in another country or remain in Iran, are a subset of Iranian women who – through their plight – highlight greater social and structural issues. I mentioned earlier that sport is a window which allows us to glimpse into the deeper realities within a society. If we are to create an equitable and kind world today and for tomorrow’s generation, we need to look deeper and start our work there. Interestingly, researching Iranian women led me to a public figure, named Maryam Rajavi, whose work tackles the root of such social and structural issues in the country by introducing specific and progressive plans for all women, particularly in sports, where she calls for equal opportunities for men and women in athletic and artistic endeavors.

The thread of equal opportunities regardless of gender is a key theme in her vision for a future Iran, one which has resonated with Iranians inside and outside of the country. Mrs. Rajavi is quite perfectly positioned with global support, infrastructure, leadership skills, and a democratic vision to address a different kind of pandemic: fundamentalism and misogyny.

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