01 June 2016

Long Road to Shirzanan

Posted in Mission, Articles

Originally edited by Mariane Pearl and published on CHIME FOR CHANGE storytelling platform in July 2015.
CHIME FOR CHANGE is excited to announce a new series with Shirzanan Global, a non-profit initiative empowering Muslim female athletes through sports and media and co-founded by Solmaz Sharif and Mara Gubuan. Shirzanan is the Persian word for “female heroes.” This series will focus on the Ride for Rights and highlight stories of TEAM SHIRZANAN a group of 10 Muslim female athletes from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Iran and the US who will bike across Iowa. Meet the Shirzanan founder and read the entire series on the CHIME Journalism platform.

I was 5 years old in 1987 when a hit Chinese Martial Arts TV series arrived in Iran. After Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, TV programming had become limited to boring shows that conveyed the voice of the government.But this Chinese series was different: It had action, visual appeal and it had originality.

The sole female actress in the show mesmerised me. She was slender and quick. Her martial arts moves inspired me so much that my mother enrolled me in a karate class and I pursued martial arts throughout my childhood. Sports gave me a sense of security, calm and peace, unlike my girlfriends I wasn’t shy about sports. When I turned 15, I won a three-month battle with my parents to enrol me in a Female Physical Education High School. It was the only sports-focused academy for girls in the entire country. People’s shock over my choice made me understand that I was doing something unexpected for a girl. Yet, I never doubted myself mostly thanks to the Chinese actress I watched run, kick, jump, and win.

My interest in the representation of female athletes in the media grew. In 1999, Iran’s all-news TV channel started. For two days I remained glued to the screen, hungry to find news about women’s sports. During my two years in high school, I had met many powerful and professional female athletes. I had been introduced to leagues that took place behind closed doors, that people wouldn’t hear or read about or see depicted anywhere. And I didn’t know why the secrecy.

I woke up the third morning and called the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation. it took me a few hours to get through to the sports editor M. Ghasemi. I asked him why women’s sports hadn’t been covered? He was interested by my request and invited me to volunteer as a women’s sports news contributor. He later became my mentor and encouraged me to pursue a career in journalism.

Through my hard work in sports newspapers, I realised that many of my male colleagues didn’t believe in women’s sports. They had little interest in including it in the news. Because the sport desks were dominated by men, women’s athletics received little or no coverage. I had to find a way to empower women and girls through media and sports and decided to launch the first Iranian women’s sports publication: Shirzanan, it means heroines. I thought it was an appropriate name for a Muslim female athlete who chooses to further complicate her life by defending her participation in sports thereby confronting family, society and in many cases, the authorities.

During the next 4 years I tried to publish it but never received the Iranian authorities’ permission to do so. Shirzanan started in New York in 2007 after I left Iran and realised that I was in another country with Internet access, that I didn’t need authorities’ or anyone’s permission.

A team of 10 primarily female journalists, translators and photographers covered events and translated international stories. I thought if the Chinese actress could change one girl’s life and inspire her to start the first Iranian women’s sports magazine, real life examples could make for a deeper impact.

Awareness became the key word (along with fundraising) We cumulated 6.5 million website hits during the first two years. Iranian women have been banned from entering stadiums for over 30 years. Advocacy groups have been working against this ban for almost two decades, but none got any attention until the policy was brought to worldwide awareness. That is because the international media got involved after Ghoncheh Ghavami, an Iranian-British citizen, and other women were arrested and allegedly beaten after attempting to enter a stadium for an Iran men’s volleyball match against Italy. As a result, the International Volleyball Federation sanctioned Iran for women’s sporting rights, and Ghoncheh Ghavami was released on bail soon after. This wouldn’t have happened without the scrutiny of international media.

Proper global support to the matter could bring Muslim female athletes to win the golden cup: the right to move our own bodies. The right to believe that we can.

This article was originally published in the Shirzanan pilot issue 2015.

About the Writer: Solmaz Sharif is a veteran journalist with 17 years of international reporting experience in Iran and New York. She founded Shirzanan, the first Iranian women's sports magazine, in 2007 upon arriving in the U.S. and with co-founder Mara Gubuan expanded it to Muslim females in sport in 2014. She speaks six languages and brings a deep and comprehensive understanding of the political, economic and cultural issues across the Middle East.

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