On the second Saturday of April, 44-year-old Mahsa Torabi put on a pair of black running pants and a blue sweater with green reflective stripes. That day, she would become the first woman to ever publicly finish a marathon in Iran. She chose a pink-patterned hijab, and she set out for Naqsh-e Rustam, an ancient necropolis in Fars Province, right across the Persian Gulf from Kuwait.
It was 6 a.m., and the only sign that the first international marathon in Iran’s history would take place that morning was a ribbon across the starting line. Torabi took one photo in the dark of the desolate course, and then she began to run. She cruised through her first marathon in just about five hours and 30 minutes without a bib, without tracking, and without any water stations.
Two hours later, the registered runners—250 competitors from 26 countries—lined up for “I Run Iran,” a race touted for its ability to unite cultures and an international community. There were no women among them, as has been the case for decades: There has not been a mixed-gender race in Iran for at least 38 years.
More than 1,000 miles and a litany of checkpoints and closed borders away, Stephanie Case waited in Gaza for news of Torabi’s finish. The two women, who have never met, had worked together for three months for this moment—a rogue run that would make history in Iran, and ideally, make a statement to the European organizers who had waffled when Case insisted they postpone the race if women weren’t allowed.
Sebastiaan Straten, the Dutch entrepreneur who organized the I Run Iran race and its associated four-day tour, believed that anyone running in Iran was better than no one running in Iran. Case, on the other hand, argued that the organizers had a responsibility for inclusion. The race could compromise on start times or dress code to appease local customs, but should never compromise on equality, Case said.
With no resolution, Torabi, who works for a soft drink company, stepped in. 50 years ago, Bobbi Gibb jumped into the 1966 Boston Marathon after half the pack had departed to race after the race director told her women “were not physiologically capable of running 26 miles.” The next year, Kathrine Switzer registered under her initials to become the first woman to officially enter the race. Torabi found herself in a similar predicament as these two trailblazers. If she wanted to compete, she would have to do so on her own terms.
“I wanted to run to show that women can run just as well as men,” she said. “I wasn’t running because I wanted to win. I wasn’t trying to break any records. I wanted to show that I can run even with a hijab, and that a woman can run and finish a marathon.”
In the past, Torabi has required police permission and an escort to bike in public. She swims, rock climbs, runs and plays volleyball, often to mixed messages, she said—her family is supportive, others are not. Her emails are peppered with exclamation points and enthusiastic comments about proving that nothing is impossible. She runs for “peace, friendship, humanity and happiness,” Torabi wrote in Farsi.
The years since the Islamic Revolution have largely cut off Iran from international sports competition, and cut off women in particular from competing in most events: in 2008, the head of the Iranian Olympic Committee insisted that “severe punishment” would fall on athletes who did not follow Islamic rules. Women could not be coached by men, or interact with male referees. (The Iranian women’s volleyball team was internally disqualified, as a result.) Women were banned from wearing tight-fitting exercise clothing and required to cover their heads.
The elevation of women in Islam to a protected category aims to respect—but can also entrap. In Iran, though norms are increasingly being challenged, the female’s sphere of influence is still located primarily in the home, where she is protected from outside influences that could corrupt or endanger her. These dangers might be prying male eyes or the strain of a five-mile run through busy city streets, or both.
Religion—and its interpretation in modern Iran—kept Torabi from the race. To her, it also helps her justify her run.
“Men and women are all creations of God,” she wrote. “Therefore, if a man can do something, so can a woman…There is no difference between them.”
Long before Torabi heard about the race, Case had attempted to register for the marathon in November herself, after hearing about it through a then-organizer and running friends. After she was turned back because “Islamic regulations” would not allow women to run, Case offered to help Straten figure out a way to compromise with local officials to make sure anyone could run.
Case is well-acquainted to the difficulty of navigating women’s sports in conservative Islamic communities. After placements in south Sudan and Afghanistan as a human rights lawyer for the United Nations, she started Free to Run, a nonprofit dedicated to providing access to sports to women and girls in conflict-affected communities. Last year, she worked with the organizers of the first marathon in Afghanistan to allow her and two other women to run the race.
She’s now based in Gaza, where the United Nations-sponsored marathon was postponed after Hamas refused to allow women. That’s the example other races should follow when faced with the possibility of fielding an all-men race on the request of the local authorities, Case said.
“I don’t think the race organizers would even think about excluding people from the event on any other grounds, such as race, religion, or ethnicity—so why is gender any different?,” she wrote via email after the race. “Holding a race that excludes women entrenches discriminatory beliefs about women—it signals to everyone that women are second-class citizens.”
But the organization shrugged away her suggestions. On the website, a banner, which has since been taken down, read: “Real Men Run Iran.”
Case detailed the interactions on her personal blog, which drew the attention of the organizers of the Iranian Silk Road Ultramarathon, a 155-mile, six-stage race in early May. They contacted Case and began to work with her to arrange for women participants. Torabi, who had met a friend of Case’s during a climbing trip in Iran, was chosen as one of those women. Only after she began training for the ultramarathon did she bring up the idea of running the Iran marathon two hours before the start, in the style of Switzer and Gibb.
Case and Torabi talked every day leading up to the race. The latter made sure to let the Iranian athletic federation know about what she planned to do to prevent any trouble on the course. Case waited on “pins and needles the whole day,” she said, to see if Torabi would finish without trouble.
People began to fill up the streets as the sun rose. They called out to Torabi and asked if she was a foreigner. Why would an Iranian woman be running at this hour, or at all? She was about halfway through the race when the police stopped her and again, asked if she was a tourist.
“I laughed and told them I was Iranian,” she said. When they asked why they hadn’t seen any of the runners, she explained that she started early to avoid running with the men. They were pleased with that answer, she said, and encouraged her and sent her off.
She passed a confused crowd waiting for the official runners. They gawked, unsure if they should cheer or not, and Torabi smiled and continued As she approached Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Achamenid Empire, she paused to take photos of ruins of the Gate of Nations Palace.
At the 20-mile mark, where most runners dread hitting “the wall” that saps one of any remaining mental and physical strength, Torabi finally caught site of the official competitors on the opposite side of the course as she turned back toward the start. The spectators on the side stood and cheered when they saw her, and the police from earlier trailed behind and offered fruit and water.
“Sometimes peace is the winning sword!,” Torabi wrote of the race of the police’s donations. “And friendship is the most peaceful weapon!”
Just like that, Torabi had made history: she along with a woman named Elham Manoocheri who competed without help from Free to Run are the first Iranian women in at least four decades to complete a race also run by men. They are the first women runners to ever finish a modern public marathon in the country.
She’d also influenced the race itself. The organizers of I Run Iran gave Torabi a medal after the race and added her photo to their website, which now boasts that they invite “men, women and children from different cultures and continents to participate.”
Torabi, like Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer, is a renegade in her own right, but is also one of many Muslim women pushing to play and run and hike in communities across the world. There is Inas Nofal, the teen from Gaza who had hoped to compete in the Palestine Marathon and win the 10km, or Aziza Raji, the Moroccan ultrarunner who placed fourth in her first appearance in the Marathon des Sables.
There is a limit on how far these women can go in their own hometowns. But once they get the opportunity to participate outside, how are they supposed to handle situations in which their own “religion is used as an argument to justify gender discriminatory policies,” as Case puts it? When organizers neglected to incorporate female athletes into a groundbreaking race designed to preach “unity” and “new horizons,” how much of their rationale can be chalked up to local politics and how much was because the organizers just didn’t care?
Straten’s last email to Case read: “I believe this first marathon can open doors for Iranian women marathon runners in the future…If it was not for the first men-only modern marathon in Athens there would not have been a marathon at all!”
Case counters that point. “I fundamentally disagree with the notion that a discriminatory event can be seen as a positive step forward,” she said. Any progress and discussion that come out of Torabi’s run will be in spite of the men-only race, not because of it, Case added.
The Iranian Silk Road Ultramarathon finished Sunday in Dasht-e-Lut, a salt desert in the Kerman Province in Iran. Case competed, as well as five other women, including Torabi. This was history, too: the first official mixed-gender race in recent history.
“Mahsa isn’t willing to sit by the sidelines,” Case wrote. “Hopefully next time she won’t have to run on them either.”
Jacqueline Kantor is a freelance journalist currently writing and traveling in the Middle East, Europe and North Africa through 2016.
Images courtesy of Free to Run