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 series designed to project targeted governmental messages, but this Chinese series was different. It had action, was visually appealing, and completely new.
My father believed TV was a waste of time. So when he started to watch this show, it triggered my interest. The only female actress in the show mesmerized me. She was slender and quick. Her martial arts actions made me believe that if she could do it, so could I. I don’t remember if I asked my mother or if I did something to make her see my interest, but she enrolled me in a karate class near our neighborhood in Tehran.
I continued martial arts throughout my childhood. It gave me a sense of security, calm and peace, and I wasn’t shy about sports like my other girl friends. When I was 15, I won a three-month battle over my parents to enroll me in a Female Physical Education High School. It was the only sports-focused academy for girls in the entire country and it was in its second year of operations when I enrolled in 1997. People’s shock over my choice made me realize that what I was doing was unexpected for a girl. But I never doubted myself, and I wondered why. I realized it was because of that Chinese actress. I watched her run, kick, jump, and win.
That was when my interest started building in women’s sports in media. I graduated from high school in 1999 and passed the first round of college entrance exams. While I was waiting for the second round, Iran’s all-news TV channel started. I watched the channel for two days, 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 about, read about or see depicted anywhere.
I woke up the third morning and started calling the phone number for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. It was around 4:30 p.m. by the time I got through to the sports editor. I asked him why there hadn’t been any news about women’s sports in the past two days. Mr. Ghasemi expressed his interest regarding my confrontation and invited me to be a volunteer 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 realized that many of my male colleagues didn’t believe in women’s sports, and thus, they had little interest in including it in the news. Because sports desks were dominated by men, this meant that women’s athletics received little or no coverage. I felt I had to do something. I had to find a way to empower women and girls through media and sports. I decided to start the first Iranian women’s sports publication, but despite four years of persistent efforts from 2001 to 2005, I was unsuccessful in receiving the Iranian authorities’ permission to publish Shirzanan, the name I chose for my magazine. It means heroines, female heroes. I thought it would be an appropriate name for a Muslim female athlete, who choses to further complicate her life by defending her act of participating in sports and confronting family, society and in many cases, the authorities.
Shirzanan started in New York in 2007, after I left Iran and realized that now that I was in another country and had Internet access, I didn’t need authorities’ permission.
A team of 10 primarily female journalists, translators and photographers covered events and translated international stories. I introduced my shirzan, heroine, Billie Jean King and her story to an Iranian audience. I thought if the Chinese actress, with the help of pre- and post-production, could change one girl’s life and inspire her to start the first Iranian women’s sports magazine, a real life example could make an even deeper impact.
My staff and I did a story on Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the founding members of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Faezeh played a significant role in post-revolution women’s sports in Iran. It was important for religious families to see that other like-minded families let their daughters participate in sports. This is why participation of influential families across the Muslim world is very important.
We cumulated 6 million website hits during the two years that Shirzanan was published, but I faced a new challenge: fundraising. “What does that even mean?” I asked myself. As an Iranian, I come from a rich and tightly controlled country where a nongovernmental organization wouldn’t make sense. I had no experience of fundraising back home. However, I quickly learned, and realized that as a news website, this project was not appealing enough to international donors who typically like to see more overt advocacy for women’s rights. While I believe in the great impact of advocacy, I firmly believe in the power of media and how advocates need media to be stronger. For example, Iranian women have been banned from entering stadiums for over 30 years. Active advocacy programs have been trying to remove this ban for almost two decades, but none got any attention until the policy was brought to worldwide awareness. That is because the 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 generated by the media coverage.
Over years of experience in athletics and in sports journalism, I have seen similar patterns across the Muslim world with regard to women’s sports. Coverage of women’s athletics and access to women’s athletics go hand in hand. Where there is coverage, there is more access. Where coverage is lacking, barriers to athletics for women are harder to overcome. In addition to advocacy programs, Shirzanan Global is dedicated to the fair and accurate representation of Muslim females and will challenge stereotypes exacerbated by mainstream media, integrate Muslim females with the international sports community and promote cross cultural understanding with the rest of the world. Shirzanan Global wants to unite women to fight for our basic rights. The right to move our own bodies. The right to believe that we can.
Solmaz Sharif is a veteran journalist with 15 years of international reporting experience and has worked in news agencies such as BBC, Voice of America and CNN. She is founder of the first Iranian women’s sports magazine, Shirzanan and New York captain at Journalism and Women Symposium, JAWS. She is lunching Shirzanan Global, a news and advocacy initiative to empower Muslim females through sports and media.