On Saturday, Kimia Alizadeh, the sole woman to win an Olympic medal for Iran, announced on Instagram that she is defecting from the country. “I am one of the millions of oppressed women in Iran with whom they have been playing for years,” the 21-year-old wrote in Persian.
Although Alizadeh did not say where she’s currently residing, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), a semiofficial state-run outlet, reported that she was in the Netherlands and that she may seek to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo for another country.
The defection comes amid escalating tension in the country, which was set off by the United States’ Jan. 3 killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian military commander. On Saturday, the same day Alizadeh announced her defection, Iran admitted that it brought down a Ukrainian airliner due to “human error,” killing all 176 passengers on board. After the government waited three days to admit fault, Iranians took to the streets — protesting their government and demanding full transparency.
“I see Alizadeh’s defection partly as part of this momentum that’s happening, where people are taking positions vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic, whoever has any kind of voice — athletes, cultural figures and so on,” says Nahid Siamdoust, a lecturer in anthropology at Yale. “But partly, of course, this is also about female athletes criticizing their handling by the government, the way in which their bodies have been disciplined.”
Alizadeh isn’t the first Iranian athlete to publicly defect in recent months, and her decision doesn’t exist in a vacuum, given increased attention to women’s rights in Iran. Here’s what to know about the situation.
In her Instagram post, Alizadeh cited her government’s sexism, including its compulsory hijab law that requires her to wear the Islamic headscarf while competing, as to why she was leaving.
“Whatever they said, I wore. Every sentence they ordered, I repeated,” Alizadeh wrote in Persian. She recalled that an official once told her, “It is not virtuous for a woman to stretch her legs.”
She went on: “I accept the pain and hardship of homesickness because I didn’t want to be part of hypocrisy, lies, injustice and flattery. This decision is even harder to win than the Olympic gold, but I remain the daughter of Iran wherever I am.”
According to Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania, “defection by its very nature is a political act and a political statement.”
“You could tell she was willing to disavow everything and leave it behind simply because she didn’t have the most basic and fundamental rights she deserved,” Kashani-Sabet added.
There has been no immediate reaction from Iranian authorities; that’s generally how officials deal with high-profile defections, according to Siamdoust. Still, some have been weighing in on the news. Mahin Farhadizadeh, a deputy Iranian sports minister, told the ISNA that Alizadeh was bowing out of competition because of educational commitments.
In 2016, Alizadeh, 18 at the time, became the first woman to win an Olympic medal for Iran. When she won the bronze medal in taekwondo in Rio de Janeiro, she fell to the floor and kissed the mat after the fight, as news outlets reported. The win propelled her into the national spotlight, and Alizadeh became a hero for girls and women in the country.
“I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold,” she said after the win. “I thank God that I made history with my bronze to pave the way for other Iranian women.”
In 2019, BBC named Alizadeh one of its top 100 “inspiring and influential women” from around the world. “In Iran, female athletes face different challenges,” she told the BBC. “But I hope in the face of all the hardships we will continue and never give up.”
The recent Iran protests follow deadly protests in November in which more than 180 people were killed. In reality, young people have been “clamoring for change” for years, demanding a more participatory government and increased human rights, says Kashani-Sabet.
For women, those calls have only been heightened. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought new laws for women, including the obligation to wear the hijab and restrictions on holding high offices. Restrictive laws also factored heavily in the realm of athletics, according to Kashani-Sabet: Women were banned from sports stadiums and some were jailed when they attempted to disguise themselves.
“Athleticism is very different from competing in a math olympiad, for example, when the body is not on display or the vehicle for success,” she says.
Experts point out that women do have good representation in other realms of Iranian life, including in education and business. But in recent years, high-profile protests have brought attention to their place in sports. In October 2018, under pressure from FIFA, women were allowed to watch soccer in a public stadium for the first time in 35 years.
Given these developments, Alizadeh’s comments aren’t necessarily a surprise, according to Siamdoust: They reflect the sentiments of many Iranian women.
Some used Alizadeh’s defection as grounds to criticize women’s rights in Iran. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus, for example, wrote on Twitter that Iran “will continue to lose more strong women unless it learns to empower and support them.”
Kashani-Sabet pointed out that although Alizadeh’s public statement “brings to light the plight of Iranian women,” it could potentially incur backlash or increased scrutiny for other high-profile female athletes who go abroad to compete.
According to Emma Sky, a Middle East studies expert and director of Yale’s World Fellows program, Olympians’ defections are significant in any instance, given that these athletes’ success “is the nation’s glory.” Alizadeh’s decision “diminishes the hope of the Iranian people for a better future — and a country in which they can thrive,” she says.
There’s been a rich history of athletes defecting amid political turmoil in the past. Czech gymnast Marie Provaznikova became the first athlete to defect during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Czechoslovakia had just become a satellite for the Soviet Union, and the defection, in which Provaznikova sought a new home in the United States, reflected the beginning of the Cold War era.
Several notable Iranian athletes have defected in recent months, including Olympian and judoka world champion Saeid Mollaei and para-archer Pourya Jalalipour. According to the BBC, two leading figures in Iranian chess, Shohreh Bayat and Mitra Hejazipour, have also been recently expelled for removing their hijab in competitions outside of Iran.
It’s difficult to tell if Alizadeh’s defection will have much bearing on larger reforms within the country, says Siamdoust. Right now, questions about the Islamic Republic’s laws regarding women are very much “out in the open,” she says.
“One athlete defecting — [the government] might not think it’s that important,” Siamdoust says. “But the thing is that there is this momentum now. So I wonder if that’s going to give them second thought.”
In her Instagram post, Alizadeh noted that she hadn’t been invited by any European countries to defect there; according to experts, her most immediate concern is finding a country that will provide her citizenship.
At the end of the day, Kashani-Sabet says, Alizadeh’s defection is important in terms of elevating the lived experiences of Iranian women. Kashani-Sabet says she read the Instagram post in Farsi and “found it really quite moving.”
“What’s touching about her post is that she’s basically saying that she’s first and foremost a woman,” Kashani-Sabet says. “She distances herself from her accomplishments and gets to the basics of it, which is her sense of deprivation as a woman.”