When people think of Middle East, sports are not one of the first things that cross their minds, and, most definitely, not women’s sports. With all the negative politics surrounding people’s conception of the region, it is hard to keep in mind that people living in countries like Iran enjoy sports as much as anyone else. For women in the region, their involvement in sports, as athletes and spectators, is even more complicated. The strict dress code – which includes covering their hair and body fully, and has received a lot of media attention in recent years – is the least of their problems.
The newly acclaimed documentary Salam Rugby – directed by Iranian born Faramarz Beheshti – tries to capture the essence of introducing rugby to women in the male-oriented Iranian society. The film takes the viewer on the journey inside the lives and hardships of Iranian female athletes who play the sport. It gives a glimpse of the injustice facing women in Iran through the limitations of their athletic lives and the consequences for those who fight against these restrictions.
The refreshing theme throughout the whole film is the athletes’ enthusiasm for rugby despite all the restrictions. The film pays tribute to the universality of sports. Scenes like women chitchatting on bus rides to practice or tackling each other on the field show that no matter your nationality or religious views, everyone plays by the same rules in sports.
In an interview with The Daily, Beheshti explained that since he is not a rugby player himself, he tried to feature the locker room talk more than the game itself. The film focuses on four female rugby teams in different cities, emphasizing the conditions under which they play and their lack of access to properly trained coaches and practice areas.
One of the story lines follows the journey of Shiraz (a city in Iran)’s team over the 100 kilometer trip they take to access an outdoor field twice a year. Most teams have to settle for indoor gymnasiums due to government’s sensitivity to the public appearance of female athletes, even when they wear uniforms that fully cover their bodies. Another narrative covers one male coach’s trouble with the authorities for training the female team and his struggle to get official support for the players.
“I was not trying to make a political statement…[but] to show the lives of people involved in the game” said Beheshti. Yet, in a country like Iran, where the border between Islam and politics is faint, it is not surprising that any issue surrounding women would be politicized.
The film suggests that the current Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has led a regime that has been extraordinarily unfavorable for women’s sports. But this might not be entirely accurate. It is important to bear in mind that the limitations began in 1979 with the beginning of the Iranian Islamic revolution and the enforcement of Shari’a law. Beheshti also ignores the struggles faced by women who play other sports in the country – focusing solely on rugby and leaving one with questions about the struggles faced by other female athletes.
As for his future projects, Beheshti mentioned that he is working on a new documentary called Tajik Rugby Quest, which captures the process of introducing both men’s and women’s rugby into Tajikistan. One of his objectives is to show the effect a women’s team could have on the nation’s general rugby ambitions.
The arthur has chosen to use a pseudonym for this article