Sometimes I wonder what I would be like if I had been born in another country, another culture, or another environment altogether. Growing up in Canada, I enjoyed every freedom I could possibly want. Women had equal rights as men, on paper and for the most part in practice, with a functioning court system to correct any wrongs. I was raised by parents who told me I could do or be anything I wanted to be (imagine my shock when I found out I could never be President of the United States because of being born on Canadian soil…mom, you lied! Took me a while to wrap my brain around that glass ceiling…). I spent my formative years immersed in a culture where the ability to think, speak and act independently was not only encouraged, but also praised. All options were on the table. I had a voice – it was my choice as to whether and how I would use it. Any failure to act was my own as there was nothing and no one to hold me back. I became a lawyer, a women’s rights advocate, and an athlete in a very male-dominated sport. Given my upbringing, this was not remotely remarkable. But what if I’d grown up under different conditions? Would I have the same thoughts, drive and determination to do the things I’m doing now? If I hadn’t been spoon-fed confidence in such a nurturing legal, social and political environment, would I still have taken the same path? I honestly don’t know. But these are the questions that have been swimming around in my head after spending a week running with Mahsa Torabi in Iran during the Iranian Silk Road Ultramarathon (ISRU)….
Mahsa, 44, was around 7 years old when the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran. Under the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was appointed as Iran’s political and religious leader for life, the status of women in society changed dramatically. Women lost the right to divorce and to child custody, the marriage age for girls was reduced to just nine years, and women were barred from certain professional roles. Wearing the hijab became mandatory with penalties ranging from heavy monetary fines to lashes for those who showed some of their hair…
Not that you would ever know that by talking to Mahsa, the only female manager in her state-owned company in Tehran. Ten years ago, when Mahsa wanted to ride a bicycle, she was told that women weren’t allowed. However, through quiet diplomacy, pragmatism and humour, Mahsa got the approval of the cycling federation to ride her bike. In doing so, she opened up the way for other women to follow suit. Just a few weeks ago, she did it again, this time with running. Women were not officially allowed to participate in the first international marathon that was held in Shiraz in April. Did that stop Mahsa? No. She informed the athletic federation of her intention to run the race anyway, and ran all 42 km “for peace, for happiness, for friendship and for humanity”. She wasn’t trying to make a statement. She just wanted to run and couldn’t see any good reason why she shouldn’t.
Running any 250km race is tough. But running in Iran through the desert was just about crazy. Temperatures had been recorded as high as 71C in the Dasht-e-Lut desert in the past, making it the hottest place on earth. Being a female runner in Iran carried additional challenges due to the conservative dress code required.
During the race, women had to wear a headscarf, tights to at least below the knee, and a
running skirt, although we were allowed to wear short-sleeves. However, at the start and end of the race, and any time the local authorities decided to ‘pop in’ for a quick visit, women had to wear full length tights and long sleeves. I didn’t mind covering up so much under the circumstances, but I have to say, when the temperatures reached 50+C degrees, I struggled to understand how any human being could be required to wear anything more than g-strings and pasties. Around camp, some of the men practically were – while the women were stuck sweltering in our more conservative gear, the Italians were not surprisingly strutting their stuff wearing their usual banana hammocks. The disparity seemed ridiculous. How were my knees more provocative than a pair of man balls flapping in the wind? I began to look at my sexy knees in a whole new light….
Mahsa, being the only Iranian woman, stayed covered up all week. There was a lot on the line. As this was the first time women and men were allowed to run together in decades, it was seen as a test – and everyone was watching. To Mahsa, wearing a few extra inches of material was a small concession to make in order to ensure that this was not the first and last time that a woman got a chance to compete like everyone else.
For seven days, Mahsa carried her pack across the desert, never once faltering in her conviction that she would finish. On day one, she dealt with a stomach illness so debilitating that she couldn’t even move for more than five minutes without having to run behind a sand dune or pile of rocks. And yet at the end of the stage, she was all thumbs up and smiles with an IV sticking out of her arm, ready to take on the next day.
Day two her blood pressure plummeted, leaving her woozy and nauseous. From the inside of the ambulance, which was thankfully stationed out along the course, Mahsa mumbled the words, “I can do it”.
On the long stage, the 80km killer walking through a Mars-like valley, Mahsa trudged forward. After almost 20 hours on her feet, in the middle of the night, Mahsa suddenly began to run over the dunes. Almost delirious from exhaustion myself, I giggled as I followed her footsteps in the sand, bathed in moonlight.
Seeing Mahsa finish – making history as the only Iranian woman in the race – is something I will never forget. Everyone was chanting her name, Mahsa! Mahsa! Mahsa!, as the race director put the finishers’ medal over her head. In that moment, I knew that Mahsa’s journey had made a difference. From now on, no one will be able to say that women shouldn’t run a race like that in Iran – Mahsa has already done it and she’s proved that it is possible.
If I had grown up in Iran like Mahsa, would I have had the guts to try to change the rules of the game? Would I have dared to run in the street let alone sign up for a 250km ultramarathon in the desert? I’d like to think so, but I’ll never really know. What I do know is that while I’m sitting here pondering these hypothetical questions, Mahsa is out continuing to blaze trails in Iran. Here she is running to work through the streets of Tehran.