A video of a male coach celebrating with female coaches of an all-female Iranian volleyball team after a match has gone viral in Iran. That’s because instead of giving his coaching colleagues a high-five, the coach instead proffers a white board, which they slap with their hands. In Iran, physical contact between men and women who aren’t related is against the law. This gesture has been nicknamed the "halal high-five" and says a lot about some of the contradictions inherent in women’s sports in Iran.
The volleyball match took place on July 19 in Pula, Croatia, as part of the Global Challenge tournament, where teams from countries all over the world come to compete. The Iranian team beat the American team Team BIP, clinching the title for the U23 Brijuni division of the tournament. The video shows the final goal scored in the match.
Some Iranians said it was ridiculous that the Iranian team’s coach couldn’t celebrate properly with his female colleagues in a more spontaneous, natural way.
"Thank God, we have found a solution to a major problem in our country: the ‘halal high five’", this person says sarcastically.
Keeping the genders apart remains a cast-iron rule in many different situations in Iran, particularly in sport. For years, Iranian women have been fighting to be able to watch men’s football, while men are regularly refused entry to women’s futsal games. Despite this, the government often hires male coaches to train female teams, because of a lack of professional female trainers, according to our Observers – which then gives rise to the kind of situation seen in the video.
>> READ ON THE OBSERVERS: 'I cried when I saw the pitch,' say Iranian women finally allowed in stadium
"Sporting federations hire male coaches, but officially they’re only 'technical advisors'"
Hossein Jamshidi is an Iranian sports journalist who works for the website Varzesh3.
For about seven or eight years, lots of sports federations in Iran – in football, volleyball, futsal or athletics – hire men to train the country’s national women’s teams. But in their contract, officially, it just says "advisor on technique" and not "coach". Officially, it’s always women who coach these teams. But it’s not the case: in reality, it’s these male coaches who do.
The federations say that they can only be considered "advisors on technique" because they don’t come to coaching sessions, and only pass on advice to the female coaches – but it’s not true.
That said, these "technical advisors" are sometimes very dependent on their female colleagues who are coaching. For example, when they have to choose players for the national teams, obviously they need to see them play, but they’re not always allowed to enter a stadium to watch the match. So they listen to what the female coaches say and watch videos taken of the players instead. [In Iran, rules about entry to stadiums tend to vary: in some places, men are never allowed to enter, while in others, some officials are permitted to go in, etc.]
In general, this works well, but sometimes there are problems. For example, the Romanian Nicolae Gioga, who was the coach for Iran’s women’s rowing team, was fired one of the rowers hugged him after they won the championships in Asia in 2017 [the Iranian women’s team had never got such good scores in this competition].
The women’s team at the AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Qatar in July 2019, with Hossein Abdi, their ‘technical advisor’. Photo: Footlady.
"Coaches can’t always go to the matches of the teams they’re coaching"
Samira (not her real name) is a professional Iranian footballer.
In the Kowsar Women Football League, the professional women’s league in Iran, six out of 10 clubs have male "advisors". They coach us and give us tactical advice, but it’s more difficult for them to coach us during the matches themselves, as officially men can’t come to women’s football or futsal matches.
Most hosting teams and stadium managers let the "advisor" enter the stadium, as long as he hangs back a bit on the pitch. But in some towns that just isn’t possible. For example, in the provinces of Gilan and Mazandaran [in the north of Iran], stadium managers never let them come in. When it’s like that, they have to try to follow the match as best they can, maybe from the roof of a nearby building, from behind the barriers, or by talking on the phone with female colleagues who are inside the stadium.
Growing gender mixing in Iranian sport
The mixing of men and women does, however, seem to be on the rise in some sports. Shirin, a professional pilates trainer, started karate last year. Although there are a number of women-only karate clubs in Iran, she says that she is training with a former world champion in order to have a better coach.
Having a male coach has been the norm for lots of women for over five years now, particularly in karate, bodybuilding or calisthenics. I have lots of female friends who train in gyms reserved for women, but who have a male coach on the side in what I think of as "hidden gyms".
There are lots of "gyms" like this. For example, in my case, my coach trains both men and women in a park, in a spot hidden from prying eyes. We always wear clothes that cover our entire body, and we’ve never had any problems. But I’ve also got female friends who train in private gyms where the coaches are men. There are a lot, particularly in buildings in the north of Tehran [in the more wealthy areas of the city]. Fortunately, these men don’t make women pay more for their services.