Iran’s New Feminism: Combat Sports

 Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

By Elizabeth Dosado

Seeing her for the first time, I was a bit taken back. She wore a hijab, long sleeves, and pants underneath her gi. The cultural differences between us were obvious — I was only wearing a t-shirt under my gi and my hair was left uncovered. Even though I had trained at this dojo a hundred times, this was the first time I had ever worked out with an athlete who covered themselves. I was soon put at ease when we shared laughs as we worked on our judo. She was a fierce competitor, and didn’t back down from me at all. I could tell she really loved practicing judo. I left the dojo that day thinking about issues bigger than myself. We may be different, but the love we feel in sport unifies us. I was impassioned at how sports can truly bring people together. I asked myself, “could it bring the world together?” For so long, we have viewed the Muslim culture as drastically different from our own world. But as opportunities for women in combat sports are on the rise, we can see a new beginning and a new feminism for Muslim women.

Shift now to another setting — a mat room and my other love, wrestling. In all of the time I have spent in a mat room, I have never seen a Muslim girl in the mix. This has always made me feel discouraged, wishing that everyone would feel open and welcome to combat sports and wrestling. With all of this burning in my mind, I set about to do some research.

Women’s wrestling in Iran

Iran has been a leading example for women’s combat sports in the Middle East. Just like the girl I met in judo, there are many women from the Middle East hoping to invest their interests in combat sports. These women are passionate and determined to have a chance to represent their country in the classical styles of wrestling.

Women’s wrestling in Iran officially began in March of 2015 with the formation of the country’s first women’s belt wrestling: a style of wrestling where the athletes wear a gi, similar to judo, and use the belt around the waist to knock each other over and score points. A team trial was held in June of 2015, and the winners of each weight class went on to represent her country at the 2015 Asian Belt Wrestling Championships. The Iranian women had much success and were overjoyed by the opportunity to wrestle. They felt honored to partake in such a noble sport. In 2017, women’s belt wrestling was formally recognized as an associated style of United World Wrestling. This development paved the way towards classical wrestling for the women of Iran.

However in the classical form of wrestling, it has been more difficult to have a uniform approved by United World Wrestling. Due to the more revealing nature of a wrestling singlet versus the already conservative form of a robe-like gi, it has been complicated to find a good alternative. Even still, a uniform was approved despite those complications. It was presented at the Las Vegas Worlds in 2015, and was debated for the following year before approval. This was an important milestone for the Middle Eastern women’s wrestling community. The uniform is now official, and Muslim women are now able to train for and compete in classical wrestling.

Limitations and pushback

In Iran, wrestling is not just a sport— it’s a way of life. Men are celebrated for their acts of kindness as well as their triumphs on the mat. A wrestler is more than a man of technique and strength, a wrestler is one of honor.

There are specific cultural and religious customs in which Iranian women must adhere. Living in a predominantly patriarchal society, progressions for women are hard fought. There are very few women in government or in leadership positions as a whole. A big push has been to allow women in stadiums, and to cheer in person rather than at home on the television. Women are currently banned from athletic stadiums as it’s believed it is too vulgar for them to watch, and the attire worn by the athletes deemed inappropriate. This ties specifically to wrestling, since it is a sport that has a special place in all Iranians’ hearts. After all, it is Iran’s national sport. The ban makes Iranian women unable to participate in giving their encouragement for their country in sports. The pain of not being present in such crucial moments to cheer on Iran can be crushing for women, especially for a sport as prevalent as wrestling.

In addition, the severity of strictness and adhesion to conservative Iranian values will vary from family to family. Depending on how conservative a family is, they may not allow their daughters to wrestle. This gives the women no true choice, relying on their family’s decision. With wrestling being such an empowering sport, women will be able to develop the confidence to push for further progression, and to become more invested in a deeply rooted and respected sport for their country. If refused on such an opportunity, women will miss out on something truly special.   

 Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Iranian Wrestling Federation Photographer- Akbari

Uniforms and coaching support

With women’s belt wrestling, it was fairly simple to modify the uniform in order to adhere to the cultural and religious beliefs of Islam. The uniform already consists of a gi, which covers the curves of the body. Long compression pants, a hijab (hair cover), and fitted long-sleeve shirts were added so the women could compete comfortably and not compromise their personal values.

However in the classical form of wrestling, it has been more difficult to have a uniform approved by United World Wrestling. Due to the more revealing nature of a wrestling singlet versus the already conservative form of a robe-like gi, it has been complicated to find a good alternative. Even still, a uniform was approved despite those complications. It was presented at the Las Vegas Worlds in 2015, and was debated for the following year before approval. This was an important milestone for the Middle Eastern women’s wrestling community. The uniform is now official, and Muslim women are now able to train for and compete in classical wrestling.

Despite the triumph with uniforms, another troubling complication is the question of coaches: there is a short supply of female coaches. The male coaches have not been able to compensate for this problem. The men are not able to do more than demonstrate on an adolescent boy, and then leave as the women practice the move. The men are not able to correct their female athletes, since they cannot touch them. It is essential that an all-female staff is sent over from other countries to help the female wrestlers in Iran.  According to a United World Wrestling article written in 2017, 2,000 Iranian women are practicing wrestling, with 100 actively competing. The Iranian wrestling community hopes that more female support will be sent over to accommodate the growing numbers.

How the world is affected

Due to the efforts in Iran, it is projected that the world will see more women with in United World Wrestling. The sport will gain more female competitors, referees, and coaches. This will help women’s wrestling as a whole, and establish more female presence where there is generally very little. As with all beginnings, there is always many hurdles to overcome. The benefits to overcoming these challenges will be exponential.

Bringing the world together through wrestling is effective because in wrestling, everyone is of equal value. It doesn’t matter what your class, sex, race, nationality, or sexual orientation is; all matches start 0-0. Wrestling does not care if you are a woman or a man. It is about what lies within you, and if you are willing to push to your limits. It is an experience that is never forgotten, and changes the athlete for the better. Wrestling has changed my whole world for the better, and I hope everyone has the opportunity to understand the same feeling.

The progressions made in Iran will be essential for women worldwide. It is imperative that support is given to further grow the sport for Muslim women. It is with great hope women’s wrestling will continue to be a success. With everyone in the world chipping in to bring wrestling to all women, we can grow the sport as a whole. Support can be given through spreading the news on social media, finding a way to donate to the cause, or simply just by watching women compete. May this be a true embodiment of the wonders that everyone can accomplish when we all come together in sport.


Elizabeth Dosado is from Ruther Glen, Virginia. She is 16, and going into her junior year in high school. She has been practicing judo for three years, and is currently a blue belt. She just completed her third wrestling season. Elizabeth teaches beginner wrestlers in local high schools in an effort to grow the sport for girls in her area.

Elizabeth was fourth in the region during the school season, and made it to Virginia State as the only girl in the 4A division. She is a three time VAWA Girls Folkstyle champion, a two time VAWA Girls Freestyle champion, and has competed nationally representing the Virginia National Team. If she isn't working out or doing combat sports, Elizabeth can be found fiddling with a guitar, singing to herself, or trying her hand at writing. She has done multiple mission trips through her church, and participates in the Army JROTC through her school.