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A handful of women ignored Iranian orders by running Tehran marathon outdoors alongside men

China’s Wu Juan was one of a handful of women who ran outdoors alongside men on Friday. (Ebrahim Noroozi/Associated Press)

Backed by the Dutch organizer of what was billed as Iran’s first international marathon in Tehran, a group of women ran alongside men outdoors on Friday, ignoring orders given by an Iranian government official earlier in the week requiring female runners to complete their course apart from men and off the streets in a nearby stadium.

“As an organizer I did NOT accept that,” Sebatiaan Straten, the Dutchman who organized the event through his group I Run Iran, told The Washington Post in an email on Friday. “Female runners had 10K route outside the stadium with same start and finish as male race.”

Straten said a small number of women also decided to run the full 42-kilometer race alongside men, including Chinese runner Wu Juan.

Fifty years ago, Kathrine Switzer broke a Boston Marathon barrier. Today, more women run than men.

That these women chose to run outdoors with men is technically against the law in Iran, which requires men and women to compete apart from each other since the country’s 1979 revolution. There are even laws that ban women from watching men’s sporting events in person and vice versa.

But according to Straten, who organized the race with his startup I Run Iran, having the women run separately was not going to happen.

Without providing details, Straten said his event was eventually given the okay to allow its male and female entrants to run together.

“My team worked hard to achieve this,” he said, calling Wu “heroic” for “finishing her marathon on the Tehran streets with the men.”

“Hopefully more female runners will follow in her footsteps in years to come!” Straten added.

Despite what appears to have been a giant step forward for female athletes in Iran, however, the women on Friday were still required to uphold strict wardrobe rules during the run. This required them to cover their bodies save for their faces, hands and feet. Men, meanwhile, wore standard running gear, including shorts and tank tops.

The order that women run the marathon apart from men came down this week from the head of Iran’s track and field federation, Majid Keyhani, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.

“Personally I do not agree with that,” Straten told the AP at the time, noting “We are trying to find other ways to make step[s] for female running in Iran.”

While Iranian women continue to fight for more equal rights to participate and watch sporting events in the country, Iran largely still sticks closely to its post-revolution traditions, especially regarding its wardrobe rules.

In February, the country’s chess federation kicked teenage chess prodigy Dorsa Derakhshani off the national team for competing without a hijab at the Gibraltar Chess Festival.

“Unfortunately, what shouldn’t have happened has happened,” Pahlevanzadeh told Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency at the time (via Radio Free Europe). “Our national interests have priority over everything.”

That reputation may be why the marathon failed to attract as many women as men.

According to the AP, of the 600 Iranian runners who registered for the race, only 156 were women.

Meanwhile, the AP reports “at least 160 foreign runners” had also agreed to participate, including 50 women. However, because of problems regarding the procurement of visas for Americans, as well as some other nationalities, several of those runners could not gain access to the country to participate in the race.

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This is the second race Straten has organized, but the first one in which women could officially participate. He organized a race in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz last April that he considered a success. While that race banned women altogether, two female runners decided to run anyway in protest. Masoumeh Torabi and Elham Manoocheri both appear to have avoided arrest for their participation. They also earned accolades from Straten at the time.

“Both have shown and proven that Iranian women can run in Iran,” he told Runners World last year. “We hope many Iranian women will follow in their footsteps in next editions!”

The rise of the female Muslim athlete:

Part 1: Once forbidden from sport, a new generation now chases Olympic glory.

Sarah Attar: A groundbreaking athlete sees change in her father’s Saudi homeland.

Part 2: Marriage, motherhood, education, maybe sports

Part 3: Competing while covered: the search for the perfect sports hijab

Part 4: Women’s soccer is booming in Jordan