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Iranian Women Make Strides in Desert

'We can do horseback riding without a hijab. It shows Iranian women in an empowered position, and helps strengthen the position of women.'

By Sandro Contenta
The Toronto Star
November 5, 1999

KORDAN, Iran - They dashed off in a thundering cloud of dust, headscarves and robes flapping in the wind, 21 female jockeys urging their horses to greater effort as the shimmering heat of the Iranian desert swallowed them up.

One rider, dressed all in pink with a tinsel-covered headscarf, looked as if she had galloped out of a Persian fairy tale.

Soon husbands, parents and supporters following them in a minibus and a pick- up truck were left far behind as Iran got its first taste of a 45-kilometre interprovincial horse race for nomadic tribeswomen.

The winner was 13-year-old Somaieh Eskiny.

But the real victors were Iranian women - and nomad culture.

Muslim women in Iran are effectively barred from participating in competitive sports because of the difficulty of playing in the traditional hijab (veil) or chador (robe.)

''We're not allowed to play sports in front of people without a hijab. And something like volleyball, for example, can't be played with a hijab,'' said Khadigeh Sepanji, president of the Women's Riding Committee of Iran which decided to hold the race for the first time this year.

''But we can do horseback riding without a hijab. It shows Iranian women in an empowered position, and helps strengthen the position of women,'' she added.

Winner Eskiny had a much simpler goal in mind when she signed up for the race. She is from the Beiranvand tribe, which traded its nomadic life for a sedentary one several years ago. It's a fate that is hitting a growing number of Iran's nomadic tribes, and one of the reasons the Women's Sports Association decided to organize the marathon.

''My father sold our horses when we settled in one place,'' Eskiny said. ''I went on and on about not having a horse, and my father finally bought one because of these races.''

As the tribes leave their nomadic lives and settle in villages or towns, they sell off their horses and lose their riding tradition. The race is one way of helping them retain that tradition.

There's nothing simpler, if you listen to Fatima Golzan, than racing a horse 45 kilometres through the desert.

''First you need a good horse. Then you need a good rider to ride the good horse,'' said Golzan, 40, an Iranian nomad from a tribe near the western border with Iraq.

Ask Golzan what makes a good rider and her dark eyes grow puzzled, as if someone has asked what makes a good walker.

''I am always on a horse,'' she said. ''I'm a nomad.''

The nomadic women learn to ride as children, using horses to herd their sheep. They have long raced among themselves for sport and fun - a tradition the Women's Sports Association of Iran decided to organize into an official competition. Before the riders - they ranged in age from 13 to 40 - could veer off the road and into the desert, one was hit by a car and thrown off her horse. She was slightly hurt, and whisked away by ambulance.

In the desert hills and valleys, the horses galloped out of sight. The motor vehicles couldn't keep up and neither knew the route. So one of the spectators, a nomad whose daughter was in the race, pointed the way by following the trail of horse tracks and dung.

It was almost noon, some three hours after the start of the race, and the heat rose from the sand in waves. The riders rode past the spectators one or two at a time, some looking as fresh as when they started, others looking as if they'd ridden 45 kilometres in the desert.


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