Recently I was scanning through the news online, when an impressive image caught my eye. It was a photograph of a young women in full aqua coloured hijab flying along on a Liv Triathlon bike. Extreme athleticism is not often associated with the Islamic dress code, but one Liv athlete has taken great running, swimming and cycling strides towards changing that perception. Below is my summary and thoughts on the story.
Shirin Gerami was born in Iran, but her family moved around quite a lot while she was young. At age 12, she developed a great love for the outdoors while hiking with her mother’s cousin in the Alborz mountains north of Tehran. Shirin moved to the UK in her teens, and has called it home since then.
While she doesn’t ordinarily dress in hijab at home in the UK, when she started competing in world class triathlons she wanted to compete as an Iranian National. However, when she contacted the Iranian Triathlon Federation, it became apparent that women didn’t get the green light for participating in triathlons because the typical dress code goes against that of Islam. To preserve modesty, all skin must be covered except the face and hands, and hair must be covered too. Hmmm … What Shirin realised was that there must be thousands of athletic young women in Iran and other Islamic countries with unrealised potential, simply because clothing had not been developed which makes activities such as competitive running, cycling and swimming truly possible.
It became her personal mission to turn that entire problem on its head. For her first international triathlon in 2013, she even travelled to Iran to develop clothing in consultation with authorities, because there were no products on the market that were acceptable in terms of modesty without hindering performance. After she completed the PruHealth World Triathlon, Shirin stated that the Iranian President tweeted his congratulations to her, and women all over the world contacted her to say they had dreamed of doing triathlons but never thought it possible.
Fast forward to October 2016, and Shirin became the first Iranian women, riding a Liv, to compete in the Ironman World Championship – with the help of companies that assisted her in developing specialised wetsuits and apparel that preserved modesty and created the least amount of drag. Completing Ironman was one thing (2,4 miles of swimming, 116 miles of cycling and 26,2 miles of running – back-to-back), but proving that a hijab is not a barrier to sports participation at this extremely high level is a whole other ball game! As Shirin stated in the article: “I do hope that me competing in this race – and in triathlons in general – while finding a solution for covered sportswear, will provide the opportunity for more women to participate in sports without having our values and beliefs disrespected. Sports are a platform that unite us in a journey of striving to be the best that we can be.”
Liv has similarly supported cycling in Afghanistan, through the Afghan Women’s Cycling Programme and an NGO called Mountain2Mountain who work with women’s rights in Afghanistan. Using bicycles or any kind of sport as a social justice tool, defying norms that need to be defied, certainly seems like a nifty way of thinking.
That’s the essence of the story – our beliefs are important, whether they are based on religious standing, or just what our values are from how we’ve grown up. But it takes special people to be intuitive enough to identify the “best that they can be” and plot the path towards it. And it takes extra special people to plot the path, walk the path and leave it open for all others who want to walk it too.
(Giant Iran very kindly and generously sponsored Shirin Gerami with a Liv Avow for Ironman Kona.)
*** Disclaimer: The factual content for this column was researched from a Women’s Health online article.