In Iran, there are a mind-boggling number of obstacles to women being able to run. But that didn’t put off Mahsa Torabi, who in 2016 became the first-ever woman to run a marathon in Iran. Although women were officially banned from I Run Iran, Iran’s first-ever international marathon, 45-year-old Mahsa decided to run it anyway – secretly.
“About three years ago I started running,” Mahsa explains to Run Deep. “I am a climber and cyclist. When I understood that Iran was going to hold its first international marathon, I tried to participate. The organisers told me that only men could participate. I tried to get approval for women, but I wasn’t successful. Then I made the decision to run in that marathon and show that Muslim women can ran in a hijab in a marathon.”
Iran is notoriously strict regarding women’s participation in sport. Female athletes have been banned from interacting with male referees, being coached by male coaches, and wearing tight sports clothing or competing without a hijab covering their heads. Mahsa herself has had to request police permission to ride her bike in the past, and has had to ride with an escort. Ten years ago she successfully negotiated with the cycling federation to travel by bicycle alone, paving the way for other Iranian female cyclists.
The first marathon
Due to the limitations placed on female runners, Mahsa had to keep her running goal a secret. However, she was pleasantly surprised by the reactions of other people in Iran. “For my first marathon, I didn’t say that I wanted to run. I didn’t do any training for that race – I knew I could do it. The race was in Shiraz and was only for men.” Mahsa started running at 6am, hours before the official race start, from the official starting line.
“I ran in that marathon unofficially. The police stopped me, but when I explained my goal for running in Iran’s first international marathon to them in a friendly way, they helped me to continue my run and never stopped me.
“No one condemned me for my running in a marathon, because I did a lot of interviews and explained why. To my mind, there isn’t any difference between men and women, and also sports don’t know any sex. Also, my goal was to show that Muslim women can run successfully in a hijab. I got so much positive feedback from my family, my friends in Iran and outside of Iran.”
Taking on more challenges
With the marathon under her belt, Mahsa might have been forgiven for resting on her laurels. However, her races have got progressively more ambitious. “After my first marathon, I ran in my first ultramarathon in the ‘hottest point on Earth’ in the Iranian desert. [It was a] 250K race in 62-degree heat in which my dear friend Stephanie Case supported me. Stephanie is the president of the organisation Free To Run, which uses adventure sports to support women and girls living in areas of conflict. She came to Iran and supported me in the race. I finished that race in six days. I ran ultras in the Iranian desert twice again. I also ran in lots of other races – marathon, ultramarathon and ultra-trail – in Iran and Afghanistan.
“I would like to participate in big ultramarathon, marathon and ultra-trail races in other countries in the future. I would like to run in 4 Deserts, which is an ultramarathon. Also the Himal Race – a 1,000K ultra in Nepal from the basecamp of Everest to the basecamp of Annapurna, taking place in 2020.”
Mahsa is an extraordinary person, full of courage and tenacity. What really shines through is her concern for other people, and her passion for helping people through sport. “I would like to develop sports for people for their health, happiness and peace. Attitudes to women’s running in Iran have changed, and have become better since I ran my marathon. More women are running than previously. I would like for more women to be able to participate in races though. I hope this will happen very soon.”
Mahsa is now an ambassador for Free To Run, encouraging more women in Iran and beyond to become involved in adventure sports. Her achievements, while personal, have also helped Iranian women to break through the barriers which prevent them from running and competing in their own country. She is a heroine of running.