A bodybuilder in Iran.
Because they have to wear hijabs, Iranian women athletes cannot compete in many international competitions, and have to settle for competing at a national level. But for Iran’s female bodybuilders, any sort of competition is out of the question.
In Iran, women work out at women-only gyms. According to our Observer, most of these gyms now offer bodybuilding classes, and sell hormones and dietary supplements as well.

“Sometimes strangers or even my own friends make fun of me”

Soubadeh Sabour is a professional bodybuilding coach in Tehran.
 Until recently, 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, which is extremely popular in Iran, Iranian women have been awakened and getting their body in good shape has become more important for them. Also, in the past few years, bodybuilding has taken off for men, with Iranians receiving acclaim on the international stage. There are even Iranian women living abroad who have made a name for themselves in the bodybuilding world.
A bodybuilder in a Tehran gym.
Here in Iran, though, the sport is just taking off for women. There are several hurdles to overcome. The first is in Iranian society, having a muscular and bulked-up body, for a woman, is not really acceptable. My own body is still feminine, despite being muscular – I am not at all as bulked up as Western champions. But sometimes strangers or even my own friends make fun of me. Some students tell me that they don’t want to look like me, that they don’t want bulky shoulders or highly defined thigh muscles, because they are afraid of how society will view them. I have about 150 students, and 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.
Iranian bodybuilder Mona Poursaleh lives and competes in the United States. 

“Gym owners are too afraid to get in trouble to organise competitions, even underground ones”
Then, there are very few skilled female bodybuilding coaches. Most have low-level certificates, and are not up-to-date on the latest knowledge in the field. I have seen many injuries caused by practicing with such coaches.
And finally, we can’t hold competitions, even women-only ones. We have to be content with hearing the compliments of our gym mates. I did ask the national bodybuilding federation [which is all-men] for permission to hold a competition, but was rejected. As far as I know, there are no underground competitions, either, because gym owners are too afraid to get into trouble. [Editor’s Note: There are, however, low-key competitions organised on social networks, where women send in photos of themselves]. I hope we will one day be allowed to organize real competitions, or else I fear there may be no future for women’s bodybuilding in Iran.
Iranian bodybuilder shiva Bagheri lives and competes in U.S. 
Iranian bodybuilding Mercedes Khani lives and competes in the United States.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Ershad Alijani (@ErshadAlijani).