HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Touch. Pause. Engage!


Ask most Americans what rugby is, and their general response is to say it’s a mix between soccer and football. Ask an English or South African native what rugby means to them, and they will most likely dive into the rules about tackles, rucks, scrums, and lineouts. Ask a woman on any Iranian women’s rugby team what rugby means to them, and the responses are sure to encompass the hardships, friendships, and empowerment the sport has brought to them. Women’s rugby in Iran has proven to be a shock to most nations around the globe. The balance between playing this contact sport versus adhering to Islamic law proves to be the main point of conflict between conservative Iranians and the women playing this physically demanding sport.

The sport of rugby has been around since the 1860’s. It emerged from running a ball around at a school named Rugby School, and it was only played by men. In 1891 the first women’s rugby team emerged from New Zealand. Since then, more and more nations have been accepting women’s rugby as a national sport (The U.S. declared its women’s national team in 1990). Iran is one of the most recent nations to have an official team of women. In 2000, the Iran Women’s Rugby Team formed from a group of women who wanted to relieve stress, have fun, and prove themselves to their colleagues.

The Iranian women's national soccer team line up before their qualifying match against Jordan for the 2012 London Olympic Games in Amman

The path to success has not been simple for the Iranian women. After being formed the team was revoked in 2011 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the 2006-2013 president of Iran, because he felt that women playing rugby showed “loose morals”. Since then the team was reestablished, but they haven’t been able to play in certain tournaments because of the dress code or “kit” that they have to wear in order to follow the Islamic law. The balance between staying true to Islam’s rules and playing the sport they love has been the focal point of problems for this team.

According to Islamic law a woman must be covered when outside of the house. This means that instead of wearing shorts and a jersey on the “pitch” (field), these women must wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and their veils while playing. Also, according to Islamic law, a man cannot touch a woman if he is not married to her, or unless he is family. This led to a problem when the national team hired a male coach from New Zealand, along with other coaches hired from within the country.


Anyone who has played soccer, football, ran track, or played any other outdoor sport on a normal day can attest to the need for cool clothes. The Iran Women’s Rugby Team not only has to be in full-coverage garments in the heat of the Middle East, but they have to wear their veils while they play. Not only does this create a problem with being overheated, but it also raises safety concerns when tackling and rucking come into play. According to rugby rules, you are not allowed to tackle anyone above the neck, but opponents can still grab onto the players’ loose clothes and yank the players to the ground. Another safety issue involves rucks. Rucks occur on the ground when the ball carrier has been tackled and the offensive teammates create a barrier to protect the ball (and ball carrier). Rucks are messy, especially if you have a headpiece on (e.g. a veil). Players in the ruck are constantly moving their footing, stepping/kicking the ball carrier often times. The veil is likely to get stuck under a “boot” (cleat), which can potentially choke the player. The Iranian women’s team has not been able to participate in certain competitions due to the veil, as well as the full-coverage uniform.

Image of an unopposed ruck

Image of an unopposed ruck

Hiring male coaches have also raised concerns to conservative Iranians, as men aren’t allowed to touch women if they aren’t direct family, or unless they are married to them. When male coach Alireza Iraj from New Zealand was hired to the team, certain measures had to be taken in order to appease the Islamic law. When describing to the women how to tackle, he had to describe it to a player as she reenacted it out on another teammate. Another problem occurred when a women’s team in Iran had a male coach that was removed after he was threatened with potential charges of prostitution if he were to go within 10 meters of any of his players.


Although the struggle between following Islamic law and playing the sport has not subsided, the national team has made many strides. In 2013 they placed 11th out of 15 in the Women’s Asian Seven Series. Another stride was made last year when the national team started Project Talent Toddlers in Tehran, where athletes on the team started coaching boys and girls aged 3-7 to play tag rugby. These accomplishments are helping to inform Iran about the positives of the sport, such as teamwork, communication, and physical well being.


In addition to appeasing Islamic law with how they play rugby, the accomplishments made by the national team and other women’s teams in the area are helping to put a positive connotation on the words, “women’s rugby” throughout Iran.





  1. jyount6 says:

    One thing that really stood out to me in your article was that the rugby players have set up a project for children to learn about playing sports, rugby in particular. This seems to be outwardly a huge step in the right direction for showing that women can be a positive force in this part of the world while they are still obeying the laws of their country and religion. This shows firstly that women are not necessarily restrained by their culture and religion and are able to be leaders, but also that if they perhaps had a bit more freedom they could do so much more to shine a positive light in the Middle East.

  2. Travis says:

    This was a very interesting post to me. I didn’t know that women’s rugby even existed, and now I actually want to go watch a game to see what it’s like. Once again, a struggle between tradition and modernism in the Middle East. Maybe as the women’s team becomes more noticed or dominant, Iran will consider bending the rules some. Hopefully it doesn’t take someone passing out from heat stroke for something to be done about the team’s uniforms.

  3. kimpgt says:

    Great article! It is interesting how sports are deemed in different cultures. In America, young children and both males and females play sports without judgement or fear from the law. Playing sports seems as harmless as going for a walk, but in Iran, women do not have that freedom to throw a ball around. You made a great point about the veiling and full body covering posing health hazards during games and I feel like there should be a compromise that can be reached so women can play sports without being labeled sacrilegious. I grew up playing sports and I know I would hate being denied because of my gender and religious law, so I think it is great that there are strides being made towards a positive connotation on “women’s rugby.”

  4. amiteichenbaum says:

    Glad to see a change of pace in the blog posts! This was very interesting and informative. I would be curious to see what the women on the team wanted to wear, and how many would choose to be fully covered while playing.

  5. nrassam3 says:

    It is very interesting to see that happening with Rugby. It is very selfish what this law has imposed on females in the middle east, wear the veil while playing sports can lead to many health related hazards. Change is a slow process, but it seems that it is slowly moving toward the goal of progress.

  6. ashumway3 says:

    It’s really inspiring to see the improvements that are being made in social freedoms in Iran while still following the laws imposed by the government. By pushing the limits of what is allowed while staying within the law, these women are making amazing progress in securing more rights for women. Certainly, there is still much to be done before true equality is secured in this area, but this example can be expanded to many other social aspects in Iran.

  7. missypittard says:

    This is awesome, and not the first time Rugby has served as a vehicle for positive social change. Your post immediately caused me to reflect on the movements led by Nelson Mandela in South Africa, where he leveraged rugby as a stepping stone to go from “One Team” to “One Country.” It appears Rugby may be able to facilitate drastic social change in Iran as well if things continue to follow this trend.

  8. coreilly says:

    This was a great post, very different and brings a unique perspective to events happening in Iran. I think it’s great there is a women’s rugby team in Iran, it shows that women are doing what they love to do and not conforming to the mainstream role of a woman in Iranian society. There will always be difficulties in a situation like this, although the safety aspect of this is very important as well. If they are more prone to being injured on the field due to their jersey requirements I can see why they were not allowed to play in some tournaments. Hopefully a solution to this will arise and they will be allowed to play wherever, whenever.

  9. wcarter31 says:

    It really shows the determination and dedication of these women if they’re willing to participate in a brutal sport in this kind of attire. Perhaps its adoption will become more widespread in the middle east and the laws will allow the necessary contact between coach and player, and also possibly allow more appropriate clothing for the sport. It will be interesting to see what results if this gains traction.

  10. trevormcelhenny says:

    Wow! I had no idea Iran had a national woman’s rugby team! I could not imagine having to play such a physical sport in that restrictive clothing, especially a head covering. My hat is off to these women who pursue their passions “in spite of it all”. I can, however, understand why they would not be permitted to play at certain competitions for safety reasons. Perhaps in the future, as popularity of rugby among women in Iran (and other middle eastern countries) grows, the uniform requirements will become less restrictive.

  11. austinsoper says:

    This is another great example of the crossroads between Islam and Europeanization. The women on the team are stuck between two worlds, both which are extremely important to them, which leads to potential problems as you mentioned such as overheating. This is the same with the Iranian women’s soccer team, which actually was banned from the Women’s World Cup in 2011 due to their refusal to remove their Hijabs. Fifa rescinded the ban in 2012, but the team failed to qualify for the 2016 World Cup this month.

  12. jkempa3 says:

    This was a fun post to read! It was interesting and for the most part happy. I would be curious to see if in the future kids, both boys and girls of younger ages could play for community, school, or even co-ed teams for recreation. I think this is big step for women in the Middle East; they are following the religious beliefs of their people while also doing what makes them happy. I hope this trend can spill over into other facets of their culture.

    • nsumi3 says:

      I was curious about this too. It seems a little ironic that they’re teaching both young boys and girls about the virtues of the sport, yet in a few years only half of their students will really be allowed to pursue it. Hopefully the women’s team can inspire the next generation to whom they will pass the torch.

  13. cryan3232 says:

    Its unfortunate that laws could prevent these teams from participating but I thought this was a very interesting post. I think that it is great that more countries, especially in the Middle East, are expanding the number of sports women play on a national level. While I think that expanding this to younger groups will help empower girls at a younger age I hope that the laws will update, or make some concessions, that help these women compete to their fullest.

  14. khospedales3 says:

    It makes me wonder about the social struggle these women go through in their athletic careers. I imagine discouragement and disdain can come from every angle on a very regular basis, and I admire not only the physical fortitude of these women who play in the sweltering heat with nothing more than hand and face exposed, but the emotional fortitude to continue despite social opposition. I would hope at least the families of these athletes lend them support in their endeavors to help make it through.

    This was definitely a great read! Nice to see the women’s rugby team inspiring young children and placing the sport in a positive light.

  15. vlobo3 says:

    This was a really interesting post! When I saw the first picture, I honestly had no idea where this article was going to go, because I had no idea that this kind of a team even existed.
    Even if their are many things slowing down their progress, it is really nice to see that they are trying to do all they can to push for further progress in these areas. It is really great to see that women are at least being allowed to play, and are still pushing to keep playing, despite of the obstacles standing in their way.

  16. lmoghimi3 says:

    It is always great seeing progress in Iran, but there is still so much that Iran needs to think about changing. In Iran it is illegal for women to attend sporting events. These female teams trying to get young girls interested in sports would have a much easier time if those girls were allowed to actually go to games rather than watch them at home on TV. Female sports is definitely an area where Iran is lacking and hopefully with these athletes even more changes will take place.

  17. jackjenkins2015 says:

    Very interesting! I think that it’s very cool for this Iranian women’s team to fight against the norm and work towards pursuing their passion. There are certainly a lot of hurdles that they still have to overcome, but if the team does well and more people get excited about it, I think that the team may have some good cultural influence and show the world and their country that they can play and women are valuable and influential and can positively make an impact. Very cool for them, I wish them the best.

  18. lalaninatl says:

    Great insight on an awesome topic! I think this is a good example of difficulties people face with women’s sports and I don’t think it’s limited to just one area. If we look at the United States, all the mainstream sports are usually limited to males and we always here about stars like Lebron, Rondo, Bryant, etc. However, we hear little about the female counter part. I rarely see people like Maya Moore on ESPN. One thing I do believe that encourages equality in sports is the Olympics. I think it’s one of the few competitions where men and women are shown equally.

  19. ssweeny3 says:

    This is definitely one of the most unique blog posts I have seen. It is obvious that you know the rules of rugby very well and have some great insight into some of the concerns that these Iranian blog posts might have. Especially what you said about the garments that the team are required to where when outside of the home. I hope that many different tournaments are going to be willing to work with them to allow them to play. I also think that this male coach female player problem will be solved eventually with time. If the coach can find a couple of other women rugby players that do not follow Islamic law to use as examples. Or have use the other women to practice with those on the Iranian team.

  20. corypope6 says:

    Very well-written article. I think that the uniform problems caused by the conflict between playing a contact sport and adhering to Islamic law would be a great opportunity for an American sports apparel company like Nike or Adidas to step in and make rugby friendly veils, etc. This would also show America’s support of progressive movements in the Middle East, not to mention allowing the team to perform better.

  21. jjacob7 says:

    This is a fascinating topic and one that I had never really thought about. It is interesting to see how two seemingly opposite facets of society – religion in all of its fervor and sport in its frivolity – must be reconciled with one another. Unfortunately the debate in Iran seems to hearken back to debates in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America about women’s sports. For instance, women’s basketball used to have entirely different rules than men’s basketball and women who rode bicycles were considered immoral. The perseverance of these Iranian women, however, is certainly a good omen.

  22. cfundora says:

    Thank you for writing this post! I think these kind of stories need to make more of an appearance in the media in order to show the multidimensionality of Middle Eastern women. I like that you mention how the balance between playing this contact sport versus adhering to Islamic law and how it proves to be the main point of conflict between conservative Iranians and the women playing this rigorous, challenging sport. I can only imagine the internal moral debate these women have, taking into account their religion and the activities that bring them joy and friendship. Furthermore, I don’t think that these two things should be mutually exclusive but ultimately it depends on the interpretation of what being moral means in the context of Islam.

  23. jenglish7 says:

    Similar to the other post regarding music as a driver for change, I see sports as yet another avenue which can inspire progress. In the modern world, sports are integral to many nations for cultural identity and as a competitive staple. As such it is very potent as an carrier of more modern thought.

  24. zhu64 says:

    It’s very glad to see that women in Iran can play the sport they like. it’s really tough to develop such a women sport team, with all the pressure of public opinion regrading women’s right, when I realize that even their coach has to keep a decent distance away from them when advising the team. It seems that in Iran, women can do many things that they cannot do in some Arabic countries. Probably it benefits from Persian revolution.

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