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 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 After being formed the team was revoked in 2011 by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the 2006-2013 president of Iran, because he felt that women playing rugby showed “loose morals”.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.
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.