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 Iran. Fabulous, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.