Monireh Ghazi interviewsTonia Valioghli, a veteran Iranian swimming champion

Tonia Valioghli is a veteran Iranian swimmer, record holder and former member of Iran’s National Team and is currently a competitive swimming coach in Germany. She is a physical education graduate from Iran and a sports commentator.

Zamaneh Media spoke to her about the situation of women’s sports in Iran before and after the Revolution and the recent controversy emerging in the sidelines of the Women’s World Chess Championship set to be held in Tehran in February 2017.

Ghazi: Ms. Valioghli since you were a member of the National Swim Team before the establishment of the Islamic Republic and were also active for some years as a sports coach and activist under the Islamic Republic, could you give us a comparative image of the situation of women athletes in these two eras?

Valioghli: Iranian society was very different from other Islamic countries before the Revolution. We had government support for women athletes but families and social mores still restricted women from becoming fully active in the sports arena; especially when the coach was male.

Accordingly, it was very difficult to form two women’s basketball or volleyball teams in a small town in order to have sustained practice and competitions. However, individual sports disciplines such as swimming, gymnastics and table tennis were less affected by this problem. There were facilities and coaches for theses disciplines and you could, as a woman, access the opportunity to practice and grow in these disciplines.

Tonia Valioghli when she made the national team in Iran.

Tonia Valioghli when she made the national team in Iran.

We must remember that modern sports disciplines do not have a long history and stretch back about 100 years. European women do not have a long history in these modern disciplines either. Presence of Iranian men in the international sports scene is due to Iran’s history in traditional sports of wrestling and weightlifting. Despite all this, in 1979, we had a national women’s volleyball team; we had women sprinters, etc.

After the Revolution, women’s sports became a victim of gender segregation. From the first days of the Islamic government, women were banned from entering stadiums even though there were no official laws dictating such banning.

The restrictions on swimming for women were even more pronounced because of the nature of swimwear. We immediately felt the reverberations in the physical education faculties. Immediately, I banded together with another swimming athlete and two university faculty members to make sure women could get exclusive use of public pools for some hours of the day. Due to our persistence, in 1980 the only national sports championships held that year was those of swimming.

Women’s sports however was penalized after the 1979 Revolution both in the universities and in the national arena. Three years later women’s sports began to reshape itself with the formation of Sports Committee of Sisters.

For the past fifteen years, national sports federations have a small women’s section. Women are allotted a small portion of the facilities and funds afforded to male athletes. For instance in all of Tehran only one pool is assigned to women. Other sports facilities might be open to use for women only for a few hours each week. The fact that I and many other sports coaches and activists have left the country speak to the reality that the national sports scene is unwelcoming to women’s sports.

Ghazi: What is your opinion about the fact that two chess players have declined to participate in the Chess Championship in Tehran?

Valioghli: I believe what Ms. Paikidze has done is very appropriate because it is a statement of solidarity with women of Iran. This action could promote the women’s movement against compulsory hijab (Islamic dress code for women) inside Iran. I wish other prominent women in other fields would also take similar actions.

Some are equating this action with sanctions and are trying to divert the dialogue. In such competitions, invitation is extended to top figures and in some cases for various reasons, (in this case compulsory hijab), an individual may decline the invitation. It can only be referred to as a boycott when a large group boycotts it and calls on others to do so. If such an action spreads, Iran may lose its status as host.

The championship will not be cancelled, it will only be transferred to another host. Then Islamic Republic’s persistence on having women of other nationalities and faiths cover their hair will be questioned.

Perhaps only the spectators will be deprived of seeing the championships. However, the question is will Iranian women have equal opportunity as Iranian men to watch the games in Iran. Those who are truly concerned about women’s sports should be called on to fight for opening of sports stadiums onto women spectators rather than trying to shame a single participant who in protest to compulsory hijab is declining to participate in the championships in Iran.