Around the World will be an occasional series celebrating the female bodybuilders of a particular country, and examining any issues peculiar to muscle women there.
Our very first post in the series looks at Iran.
Remember Shiva Bagheri? She was a fitness competitor in the early-ish days of fitness. If the name is unfamiliar, perhaps the body will jog your memory...
In fact, Shiva is an LA native and these days runs her own dance studios in West Hollywood, Shiva's Dance and Fitness. She was neither born nor has she ever lived in Iran. And as such, Shiva is the archetypal Iranian/Persian muscle woman.
She is one of the estimated four or five million people of Iranian descent or birth who live outside of the country, part of the Iranian diaspora that has largely been created by emigration from the country in the wake of the 1979 Revolution that brought about the establishment of a theocratic political system there.
Ania Anvaryfar (left) and Mona Porsaleh (right), for example, are both based in Toronto, where the Poursaleh family settled after moving away from Iran in 2002.
Sheida Tehrani was born in Tehran but now lives in Kuala Lumpar, where she earns her living as a personal trainer and fitness competitor.
Sashli Amirfatemi Stjärnqvist (left) and Salomeh Adham (right) are both women of Iranian descent who now build up their muscles in Sweden.
You can also find the Iranian diaspora represented in the sport of Crossfit.
Azadeh Boroumand emigrated to Canada with her family in the late '80s.
Now a US resident, she decided to sit out the Games last year, citing the physical, mental and emotional toll that qualifying had taken on her.
However, she does plan to compete again in 2014.
'Azadeh' means 'freedom' in Farsi, something that is in short supply in Iran, especially where women are concerned. This is, after all, a society in which a cleric can stand in front of a crowd and quite confidently proclaim that 'women who do not dress modestly lead young men astray and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes'. Yep. You read that right. Immodest dress = Adultery = Earthquakes. Adultery incurs the wrath of Allah, and it's Allah who makes earthquakes you see.
In such a climate, it's not surprising that it's hard to find out much about female bodybuilders, or indeed any female sportswomen, who are Iranian and still in Iran. Female athletes, for example, must wear hijabs when they compete, and are consequently largely absent from international competition.
However, via France24's Observers series, one Iranian female bodybuilder has dared to speak out about her life, her sport, and the difficulties she has in her country.
Step forward, Soudabeh Sabour.
Until recently, she says, Iranian women weren’t really interested in bodybuilding, mainly because of the way they dress – when you wear Islamic dress, you don’t really care what your body looks like underneath. But with the advent of foreign channels on satellite TV, Iranian women have been awakened and getting their body in good shape has become more important for them.
Soudabeh works as a personal trainer (for women only, obviously) in a Tehran gym, and claims to have over 150 clients, although only 5 or 6 of them really want to achieve a professional bodybuilder’s body definition; the others want to stop when they get just a little muscle. As in most places, maybe all, muscular definition on women is not regarded as desirable in Iranian society. Sometimes strangers or even my own friends make fun of me, Soudabeh says, in perhaps the only instance of shared experience she has with women elsewhere in the world! However, in Iran, there is much much more than the odd comment to contend with.
We can’t hold competitions, even women-only ones, Soudabeh says. And it's not for want of trying. I did ask the national bodybuilding federation [men-only] for permission to hold a competition, but was rejected. Gym owners refuse to host 'underground' unsanctioned competitions for fear of recriminations from the authorities if caught. There are, however, rumours that 'virtual contests' take place via social media, although FMS has had no luck in trying to confirm that this is the case.
I hope we will one day be allowed to organize real competitions, says Soudabeh, or else I fear there may be no future for women’s bodybuilding in Iran.
It's a depressing thought. The talent the country has is clear to see from the women of Iranian origin who have prospered in more accommodating climates. However, given Soudabeh Sabour's tenacity in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles, perhaps all is not lost for female muscle in Iran after all.
Not yet, anyway.
You can follow Iranian Muscle Girl's Society on Facebook to keep up with Iranian muscle women, inside and outside the country, and show your support for Soudabeh.