Parkour is an edgy, urban sport originated in the “ghettos” of France, so it only makes sense it appeals to North Tehran girls. The following article details how girls practice parkour in Northern parks. The authorities grudgingly accept it, but at the same time, call these girls “wanting to be like men”- a woman having fun, being daring, stylish, and athletic is such a threat to them!
Iranian women use parkour to navigate obstacles and prejudices
March 19, 2014 Updated: March 19, 2014 14:19:00
TEHRAN // In a Tehran park, sneering men look shocked at a group of brave young women as they perform flips, mid-air somersaults and bound from pillar to pillar.
The group has discovered parkour, the fast-moving sport blending acrobatics and gymnastics that has become their outlet for evading social constraints and dealing with stress.
“As a woman, it’s a bit complicated,” says their teacher Maryam Sedighian Rad, 28, who earned a master’s degree in physiology.
She and the others wear the hijab and her group often has a male escort when they practice outside to ward off unwelcome company – and sometimes police.
Conceived in France in the late 1980s, parkour involves getting around or over urban obstacles, with a fast-paced mix of running, jumping and gymnastic rolls and vaults.
Offering a cocktail of excitement, danger and risk, it caught on around the world thanks to blockbuster movies like Yamakasi and District B13.
Now, it has gained a foothold in Iran – and not only among the usual young male aficionado.
Ms Sedighian Rad and about 50 women, teenagers and young adults, are among the hundreds of Iranians practicing this non-competitive discipline that morphed from military obstacle course training into a mainly urban sport.
The parkour motto: “Never move backwards”, seems to hold particular resonance here.
Three times a week, Ms Sedighian Rad trains her groups at three indoor sports complexes.
“We encounter problems but we try our best to cope with them because we love doing parkour,” she says.
Unperturbed, Helia Goharbavar, 16, readjusts her hijab after every move.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “It’s cold anyway and you have to wear something. Besides, we are used to it.”
One of the most agile in the group, Arefeh Shoari, 17, admits she often fears that certain moves might expose parts of her body. But she and the other girls say parkour, often billed as a holistic discipline, has given them freedom and confidence.
“There was a jump I couldn’t do at first … learning it made me realize I am capable of doing anything and defeating any obstacle,” says Ms Sedighian Rad. “I feel free.”
Arefeh says parkour allows her to cope with everyday life.
“I am really stressed out because of my studies but parkour helps me a lot to deal with the stress. I feel happy”
“Practising parkour shows that even if you are a woman, you are not bound to stay at home,” says Helia.
Apart from the risk of injury, the women also brave derision in a country where mixed activities are banned.
“Sometimes people criticize us saying this isn’t a sport for girls. They say we’re supposed to knit … They can’t imagine a girl exercising like a boy,” Ms Sedighian Rad says.
Athena Karami, 19, recalls how she once had to leave the park during practice after a crowd of teenage boys “made fun of us and filmed us with their mobile phones”.
To head off such problems, Ns Sedighian Rad usually takes along male members of Hitall, the parkour club she joined in May 2012, when her group trains outside.
At times police have interrupted their workout.
“But when they see that it’s just a sport and that we are really exercising, they let us be,” Ms Sedighian Rad says.
“Sometimes they even express interest in parkour and ask where they can get training.”
[Actually, even many other countries have become interested in girls doing parkour in North Tehran- the two still shots below come from a Chinese television documentary about these girls!]
This article is not the first about North Tehran parkour-loving girls- the first such article was actually written by The Guardian in 2013, but it had no pictures (only some videos, which I have linked below). Here is the shorter Guardian piece – I have spread around some of the pictures from the AFP article into the Guardian article.
Parkour life: Iranian women get physical
First it was martial arts. Now Iranian women are combating their bullying street culture by taking up parkour.
On any given Friday, groups of young women across Iran can be seen jumping from rooftops, scaling the graffitied walls of apartment blocks, and catapulting themselves over stairways. They are not being chased by riot police, but merely practising their parkour moves, especially the ground roll, tricky to execute while wearing a headscarf.
Parkour’s popularity among young women in Iran is soaring, despite the bulkier clothing and head coverings Islamic dress codes require them to wear. The outdoor sport, a fast-paced hybrid of gymnastics and martial arts, seems designed to get you out of a fix quickly, which perhaps explains its appeal to young Iranians, whose social lives in the strict Islamic republic often require considerable agility. Iran’s female practitioners are running their own threads on Persian-language forums and posting films online to showcase their skills. Unlike the men’s scene, with its heavy rap culture overtones and emphasis on group rivalries, the girls’ movement comes across as more athletic and purposeful, despite the greater challenges women face practicing outdoors.
Men hold major parkour tournaments in urban parks and talk openly online about parkour being accepted by local police. Not so for women, whose equal access to sports facilities and public areas for exercise has long been contested by the government.
The authorities may tolerate matrons doing aerobics in parks, but young women dashing over obstacles pushes the boundaries of acceptability. One young woman, hiding behind oversize sunglasses, says in a YouTube clip: “It’s become quite acceptable for guys, but because we’re girls, when we’re out practising, they sometimes hassle us.”
What’s striking about parkour’s appeal among Iranian women is the sheer breadth of the trend. It’s not being led by the reed thin, Fendi-clad women of North Tehran, but girls in trainers and practical headscarves (maghnaeh) [better known as snoods- they are not technically scarves] from Lahijan to Shiraz. [Northern girls come in many styles- the “urban” culture is something they are deeply interested in, too]. Parkour’s punchiness seems to resonate among Iranian women, who in recent years have also taken up martial arts in record numbers. [Below are two girls in snoods doing parkour – the one leaping has bright red pants!]
The context is the bullying culture and street violence that women face under the country’s Islamic government, whose discriminatory laws make seeking legal recourse for domestic violence almost pointless.
Women in Iran, who make up 60% of graduates, have never had so much to feel angry about, with the state increasing gender segregation at university, among other changes.
Nooshin, a councillor for Iran’s welfare organisation in the city of Hamedan, says she has seen women’s awareness of their own physical capabilities shifting. “Do you think it’s coincidence that more women are taking karate and kung-fu classes? Women, especially young women, are learning about their rights and fighting back.”
Even in the rebellious milieu of Iran’s parkour scene, where you encounter endless clips set to edgy Persian hip-hop and would expect to find more progressive social mores among men, women’s involvement has met with criticism. One young man questioned on the national parkour website whether the sport was in line with women’s “modesty and chastity”. But in film clips online there are also scenes of men standing by to aid women doing air somersaults, clearly enjoying their role as helpers.
As one student from a Tehran parkour clan says: “It gives us courage and helps us release our pent-up energy. It’s great to feel that nothing can stand in your way.”
I have featured two girls doing parkour in manteaus in 2013 on this blog – this photo can be found right here! And here are a couple shots of girls at a men’s parkour competition from back in 2011!