Musings about life Race Reports

Male-only marathon?

As an adventure-hungry blogger, I often get invitations to interesting races. In early November last year, I got an email from a Dutch guy named Jan, who invited me to the first international marathon in IranFabulous, I thought. I am so in. Visa issues aside as a Canadian, this seemed like a seriously cool opportunity.


However, after I started looking into the registration details, I discovered that it was open to males only. The more I read, the more appalled I became. The slogan of the marathon: “Real men run Iran.”

Are you kidding me?

I wrote back to Jan inquiring about the male-only policy, and he apologetically replied that he had just heard the week before that the authorities wouldn’t allow women to run. He said, “for me that was a reason to pull out as an advisor/ambassador to this potentially great project.”  Bravo, Jan.

While I was pleased to read that Jan did not want to be associated with a gender discriminatory event, I was increasingly disturbed by the fact that the others on the organizing committee were going forward, especially as I had been told they were European.

I then started receiving emails from other women who had wanted to enter as well. One woman wrote:

According to organisers it’s against Islamic tradition for women to run. Well, I’m resident in a v[ery] strict Muslim country and it’s comments like that which are just not accurate and don’t encourage women to even find out if they would enjoy running.

She asked me to try to advocate for change through my charity, Free to Run. “[P]erhaps if enough organizations make a noise then things will change gradually.”

I decided to enter the race online and see what kind of response I would get. I got a quick reply from the organizers telling me that unfortunately I would not be allowed to participate on account of my sex. They were polite and put the blame on the authorities, but didn’t seem to recognize their role or responsibility.  I wrote directly to Sebastiaan, the race organizer, who is reportedly from Holland. After some pleasantries, I said:

I appreciate the challenges of putting on this kind of event, but I also think there is a responsibility on organizers not to promote gender exclusion. If the authorities say that women are not allowed, then I would hope as a race organizer you would then choose not to hold the race. This helps to pass the message that women have the right to participate. By running a male-only event, this perpetuates discriminatory beliefs against women. For instance, the UN used to run a marathon/5k[?] race in Gaza. When [the authorities] said that women weren’t allowed to participate, the UN took a principled stand and cancelled the race. It is better not to continue for anyone than to run a race that further entrenches discrimination.

I urge you to reconsider putting on this race. I know it is difficult, but these things are important and I believe you have a responsibility here.

Sebastiaan’s reply was again polite, but clearly he was not willing to change plans on something as ‘minor’ as gender discrimination:

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!

As you might imagine, I had to respond:

…As the race organizer, you are bringing tourism dollars and positive PR for Iran. Perhaps with some advocacy and a little bit of pressure, you could have an impact. Showing examples of women running in other traditional/Islamic countries, like the news articles we had of women running in Afghanistan, could help.

To draw a rather blunt analogy, would opening a golf club for [only] white people be seen as opening the door for black people to play golf in the future? Absolutely not. I know it is a crude example, but I fear it is the same thing. As an international, you have a responsibility here. By holding a male only event, we do believe that you will be causing harm, not just holding the ‘status quo’. I urge you to reconsider and again, I am happy to discuss this with you over skype.

I never heard back.

A few days ago, the Telegraph published an article about the marathon, indicating that “15 Britons, 15 French men and two Canadians are among the 200 individuals from more than 35 countries who have registered for the event”. That is why I am compelled to now publicly write about this on my blog.

I have no doubt that Sebastiaan and the others involved are lovely people with good intentions, which is why I tried to engage in discussion with them privately a number of times.  I am sure they see this as something that is unavoidable and they are happy to put the blame on the authorities. Unfortunately, I think they are missing the point. Saying “not our fault, maybe next time!” just doesn’t fly in my books.

As many of you know, in 2014 I founded a charity called Free to Run, which uses sport as a tool of empowerment for women and girls in conflict-affected areas. In October, we had over 50 girls finish a 10km race outdoors in Afghanistan and we saw the first Afghan woman – our Free to Run Ambassador – complete a full marathon. In June, two Afghan women completed a 250 km self-supported footrace across the Gobi desert.

I have spent a lot of time over the past few years talking to people all over the world, including from very traditional societies and Islamic countries, about women in sports. I first blogged about the topic of women in sports in Islam in 2012, not realizing at the time that I would be deeply engaged in this arena a few years later. I do not pretend to be an expert in Islam – certainly not. But I sometimes religion is used as an argument to justify gender discriminatory policies… and that is just not okay coming from anyone.

The effect of excluding women from a race goes beyond just one marathon on one day. It sends a very damaging message to about the place and role of women in society and in public life. The stated purpose of the event is to “unite humanity”. How is that even possible when 50% of the population is excluded? The race organizers have a responsibility not to move forward until women are allowed to participate. Does this mean that men will lose out? It sure does… but so what? Men and women are equal, period – not equal only when it is convenient for men.

If you are signed up for the race, I urge you to withdraw and explain to the race organizers why you are pulling out.

If you believe in gender equality (which you should), please do share your concerns with the organizers. Sebastiaan’s email is Their Facebook page is here.

I ask you to join me in advocating for this race to be called off until women are allowed to join.

To end on a positive note, here are some of the kickass Free to Run women and girls in Afghanistan proving that females can and should run. If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.



51 comments on “Male-only marathon?

  1. I totally agree with you! First of all, a men only race is not ‘automatically’ going to lead to women participating. As history has shown, change does not come about without a conscious effort. Secondly, why would men not suffer when women do? Why use your male privilege anyway eventhough you know it comes at the expense of women’s? This way, progress is always going to remain ‘somebody (i.e. women) else’s problem, not mine’. Infuriating!

    • I find it hypocritical that women get so upset with male only races and yet there is no outrage for the numerous women only races. What gives?

      • Thanks for asking! As women have traditionally been excluded from the sport, and continue to face barriers to participation, it is important to provide a space in which women feel comfortable participating and encouraged to join. Female races help to correct the imbalance and create equitable opportunities. It is the same as when, for example, there are associations for black attorneys, but an association for white attorneys would be offensive. It is about looking at the power imbalance in society and taking steps to correct it by offering more opportunities for the marginalized group.

  2. “If it was not for the first men only modern marathon in Athens there would not have been a marathon at all!” I snorted out loud when I read that response. So, the first modern marathon was, I believe, at the 1896 Olympics, and in 1967 Kathrine Switzer was accosted for trying to participate in the Boston marathon. Under Sebastian’s logic, Iranian women should be content to wait until 2087 before they try to run — and then they should expect for someone to try to tackle them when they do it! Afterall… that’s what progress looks like, right?

    And I agree with Annelies – why would you use your privilege in this way? I understand privileges are sometimes thrust upon us and we have no choice, but to not only embrace it but to really seek out your privilege – which you have to do if you’re organizing or running in a male-only marathon – is a sad commentary on these oganizer’s character. You may think they’re good guys, Stephanie, but I question their integrity if they are so easily willing to embrace their privilege and ignore the plight of Iranian women.

  3. Emilia Lahti

    Amazing work with everything, Stephanie ❤ I'm so your fan : )

  4. Fully agree, and good on your for opening discussions with people about it, despite their different views….. Which are obviously wrong heheh. Could you imagine in the Nike women’s marathon didn’t allow men to run?! The outrage that would take place!

  5. My question for you. If you are all about equality and not wanting a male only event. Why is it okay to have female only events and series such as the Nike women’s half or the queen bee half marathon?

    • Dude, this is not that hard to grasp. Do a little reading on your own and try to figure it out. You don’t need to lean on women to explain all this shit to you, the information is out there, you can think critically and learn on your own.

    • I agree with this. I enjoy running mixed gender races talking to different people whatever sex. However there seems to be an increase in women only events. It was explained to me many women feel self conscious when running with men which I thought fair enough. However there seems to be a big outrage if anyone organises a men only event !!!

      • Hi Stan, the women-focused events organized in the states are still open to men as far as I’m aware. Having women-themed races helps to create more space for women to get involved in sport and competition (to even the playing field). They are addressing a problem of indirect exclusion and inequality… a male-only event in which women aren’t allowed to participate is quite a different thing 🙂

      • I just know a friend of mine asked if he could join a women race with some women friends to give support here in UK and was told by organisers it was for women only for reasons I mentioned. And I do know some women who have said they feel self conscious running with men. I enjoy running with men and women and personally don’t think race organisers should exclude either. But I do understand that if some people do feel awkward or self conscious running with members of opposite sex then there may be an argument for gender specific races for them. However I also understand that the Iranian Marathon was probably not for this reason and was most likely discrimination.

  6. Dumb question – both those events allow men to sign up – I’ve run the Nike woman’s marathon. Also given there are hundreds of running events in the US, having events that provide a less intimidating atmosphere for women is ok (though given the stats that’s fortunately not necessary anymore). Creating equality is not just about allowing things equally by laws alone, society should have the responsibility to actively undo the damage that has been done and recognize the continuing disadvantage of social groups due to prejudice, biased upbringings etc. This isn’t just some feminist blah, it actually makes a ton of sense for a modern society.

    • Thanks for your answer to Jeff that was informative and respectful … I knew someone would ask (and 99% that it would be a guy) so I am glad a good answer was given. 🙂

      • My answer was not informative and respectful, I’m SO OVER dudes like that. The rest of us are not here to educate people like him.

        I’m betting Jeff will be OK with that answer because natch, it’s written by a dude.

    • It would be amusing if it wasn’t so sad how easily discrimination in the opposite direction is so easily dismissed… The Race For Life to name but one is an event that does NOT allow men to sign up. Thankfully there are similar but more enlightened events, such as the Moonwalk, that whilst predominantly walked by women do not see the need to exclude anyone…

      • Hi Chris…. well, yes, making an argument that men are discriminated against in this context would be rather difficult, so I will assume that is not what you are trying to do 😉 I will also assume from your name that you are a male (I could be wrong). Achieving equality doesn’t necessarily mean treating everyone equally. I will stop here as there are many great explanations in the comments on this page already 🙂

  7. Well said Stephanie!!!!! The world needs more people like you. I love your work more and more each day. ❤️

  8. Sam Tomlinson

    Completely agree with Stephanie’s position – running should be one of the most gender-neutral sports out there – so the running community should be actively telling Iran their men-only stance is unacceptable. And I’m no expert on the Koran, but would be surprised if it contained any passages that ban women from running. Stephanie’s point about religion being (mis)used to justify gender discrimination is sadly very accurate.

    • Well thank goodness 🙂 I strongly support women-themed events as they provide a more comfortable space to encourage women’s participation, which is often suppressed in sports due to discrimination and harassment. Look at Beat’s comment above on how achieving equality doesn’t necessarily mean equal treatment. And guess what: those races are open to men! 🙂

      • Exactly! I find it disheartening:
        1) that there always has to be a majority response of the “where’s my WHITE history month” variety
        2) that there is a conflation of racing in the US and other western countries where we have millions of all genders, races, religions and ages finishing races each year … with what is happening where there are still so many issues just HAVING a race!

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  10. Didn’t Iran send a woman runner to the London Games? She ran fully covered, but she ran.

  11. Thank you for sharing this. I hope it’s OK to reblog it.

  12. I will be sharing – thank you for bringing light to this!

  13. Reblogged this on Fat Girl to Ironman and commented:
    I don’t often reblog other people’s content, but I think this is so important that I feel I should share it with you.

  14. As a Muslim, I always find these kinds of events ludicrous. Living in South Africa, we have a huge running community with many Muslim men and women avidly running and each year the numbers grow.

    There are narrations of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) running races with his wives. So for them to say that it is against Islamic tradition is a load of bull. It’s just contrary to their own cultural norms and not those of Islam.

  15. Pingback: When An Event Promotes Oppression of Women | Geargals


    Hi, may I ask you if you know FOR SURE that this marathon is just for men? I read the pdf in English first “male runners” then in German and the “male” was gong which led me to believe it was a translation error. When I clicked the “participate” form there were fields for Miss or Mrs when you clicked “I am a marathoner”.
    => Now I’m confused. Maybe this is just a mistake?

  17. Hi there! It is definitely just for men. I have tried to register and so have other women and we have received the same response from the race organizers – no. That is why some people have dropped off the organizing committee.

  18. I appreciate your thoughtful response to this. I am Canadian, woman, feminist and runner who also recently spent some time traveling in Iran. I felt conflicted before I got there (and am still thinking about it!) but overall I had an incredible experience- loved the people, the history, and totally challenged my perceptions.
    I saw the posting for the marathon some weeks ago and believed it to be open for both genders- was feeling excited and optimistic as I considered signing up as an excuse to return to Iran.
    Back to feeling conflicted….
    Thanks again for your eloquence and attention to the intersection of issues I am passionate about.

    • I’ve just been informed that there is another race being organized in Iran in May (an ultra), which is open to BOTH genders: I am looking at trying to get a visa to go! This proves that it IS possible to have a mixed gender race in Iran. I strongly feel that I run Iran should have tried harder to negotiate or find other options that would satisfy authorities (like separate race starts etc.). Hopefully Canada will re-establish diplomatic ties with Iran again soon. I believe it was a serious mistake to break them off in 2012!

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  21. Just thought I’d note that all critical comments on their Facebook page have been deleted. No replies/comments given. Pretty poor.

  22. Thank you so much for posting about this. And also for your ongoing efforts to gain acceptance of women in traditional patriarchal societies, this is such a significant issue in many countries as you well know.

    I just wanted to ask if the slogan in your post “real men run Iran” is an accurate translation? If so this is significant in itself as Iran a strict theocracy where the Ayatollah’s ‘run the country.’ I understand your boycotting this race and I hope that one year, 2017??, you will be able to lead your organization team of female runners. Perhaps you can also encourage those that are running to take a stand for including women, by such things as wearing hair extensions, running in pink, slogans on their race apparel, maybe someone running backwards as a statement of their policy, etc. The Olympics are this year so perhaps a few well placed signs along the men’s and women’s marathon route… Symbolism through social media can go along way.

    My knees keep me from running anymore so I run vicariously through all your posts

  23. I’m very impressed. Aside from your excellent writing, you really do the good work that needs to be done in the world. Bravo to you. This blog is excellent.

  24. This totally sucks, and is totally, totally wrong. Shame on all of the men who have entered fully knowing that women are being excluded (may the gods look down upon them and prevent them from reaching a PR).
    I think that someone needs to pull a Kathy Switzer, enter the race with only initials, show up in male drag, and not only run the race but beat as many men as possible.
    Because this is so, so friggin’ wrong.

  25. Dear Stephanie Case,
    Fortunately for an entire population of future Iranian (male and female) runners you have been unsuccesful in boycotting our 1st International Iran Marathon. Your intentions in this case are probably noble but not effective at all. By organizing this marathon we have achieved the following goals:
    – clearly explained to local authorities that women should have the right to run (by one of our female team members and myself)
    – First 2 female Iranian athletes participated and finished this marathon and were awarded with a medal
    – showing hundreds of boys and girls along the road and thousands at home that it is fun to run
    – opening the way for female participation in the second edition of I run Iran marathon!
    So we did make steps forward. Which might be small for some but big for others. In case we would have cancelled this inaugural marathon like you suggested/demanded there would not have been made any steps at all. I leave it up to the near future to show us which road was the right one.
    With friendly regards,
    Sebastiaan Straten
    Organizer I run Iran marathons

    • Hi Sebastiaan, I appreciate you responding… but I think you have missed the point 🙂 This blog post was the most popular post I have written since I began blogging 7 years ago. I understand many people emailed you (some of which I was copied on) and commented on your facebook page, although it appears you deleted the responses (?). I feel strongly about the call for a boycott – you profited immensely from a race that excluded women and I feel that you took shortcuts. Mahsa, on your behalf, continued to work with the authorities to get their approval to run. Had you done more – anything? – from your side to support this argument and her efforts from the beginning, maybe all other women would have been able to run. Because you did go forward with your race, we absolutely supported her run, which many have called a protest. Yes, if the race hadn’t happened, there wouldn’t have been anything to protest… but can you really take credit for that? Mahsa is a Free to Run ambassador we are incredibly proud of her. We began working with her because we are supporting her in the very gender inclusive Iran Silk Road Ultra in a week’s time. They are race directors we can get behind. Unfortunately, I think you’re right in some ways – this post was ineffective in the sense that I had hoped this would make you step back and think about your actions and your responsibilities in putting this race on…. but I don’t think it has. Hundreds of boys and girls saw it was fun to run – but without women. Mahsa was extremely brave and she did a great thing. But she ran on the sidelines, unofficially, because you did not put in enough efforts to make sure the race did not go forward until women were included. It WAS possible. And it is…Thanks to Mahsa and Alireza’s incredible efforts, diplomacy, and work that they did to open up the way for more women. I do think that you’re happy she ran. But I feel like you are trying to take advantage of positive PR that you didn’t have a hand in producing. I would be very happy to hear if I’m wrong! What did you do personally to push forward gender inclusion? Did you raise this as a stipulation from the beginning? I understand you didn’t. I affirm the more principled stance that the UN has taken in Gaza with the marathon. I look forward to seeing more inclusive races in Iran.

  26. Dear Stephanie,

    You are either misinterpreting the facts or not fully aware of them. Both Masoumeh (Mahsa) Torabi and Ali Reza are part of the I run Iran organization. I even asked Masoumeh myself personally to be part of our team to organize this first Iran marathon. Together we tried hard to secure full female participation.

    Also I would like to correct your other baseless statement. ‘You profited immensely from a race…’ This is so totally besides the truth. Mahsa will explain it you herself when you will come to Iran and discover this amazing country with your own eyes. I hope it will give you the perspective you need to judge about me and our marathon project which opens the way for (female) running in Iran!

    Finally I hope you understand we have the same goal but choose different ways to achieve it. Boycots do not work, making little steps forward does!

    Iran Silk Road
    Organizer I run Iran marathon

    • Thanks for your reply! I still stand strongly behind these statements. I fully appreciate you asked Alireza and Mahsa to do the negotiations for you… My point is that you should have taken a stronger stance on gender equality and inclusivity from the beginning. They did an amazing job trying and we are all lucky to know them. But from an organizational point of view I – and many others – fundamentally disagree with your approach. We aren’t going to agree on this, so let’s end it there. Best of luck with future endeavours and I hope maybe, offline, you’ve paused?

  27. Thank you for your effort. I just left a comment on the facebook page of iruniran. Having travelled in Iran and knowing a bit about women’s “rights” in Iran and the deep dislike of their situation that many women have, I can only agree with you.

  28. My God you are AMAZING!

  29. I have been meaning to drop you a note and tell you how impressed we were with your marathon, and your beautiful state. My husband and I have been race directors for several small local races, and we can only imagine the work that goes into putting on a marathon and half marathon.

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  31. Wow! I know this post is almost a year old, but I just stumbled upon it today. Good for you for maintaining your strong stance! I only hope that this past year has proved beneficial in the support of women runners around the world.

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