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While MMA fighters like Ronda Rousey have popularized disciplines like Brazilian jiu-jitsu for women, there's one place where they can't get on the mat: Iran. But there are still some who practice the martial art in secret.
Leila* was 12 years old the first time she departed from her native Iran. She spent the next 15 living in the UK before returning a grown woman in her mid-20s—only this time carrying the jiu-jitsu bug.
More specifically, she had fallen in love with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is the fastest growing martial art and competitive sport in the world, due in part to the global success of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).
'BJJ' is a grappling discipline, much like Olympic wrestling or judo, whereby an opponent's limbs and torso can be controlled utilizing a comprehensive range of clinching techniques, the end goal being the submission of an opponent due to a choke or joint lock.
During sparring, or "rolls," training partners inevitably become entangled in the most intimate of positions which, as you can imagine, is a problem in one of the most gender segregated countries in the world.
"Women aren't even allowed to go watch guy's train," said Leila, never mind sharing the same mat space as their male counterparts.
After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini brought in an all-prevailing sharia law, which included a litany of rules governing public behaviour between the genders. For Leila, training martial arts on a daily basis is gruelling enough on the body without the added threat of state-mandated capital punishments and penalties.
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"Sexism is all over, everywhere. I don't mind covering myself but the way they look at you, the way they treat you. As a woman here, I cannot go and do as I please," Leila explained to me over a shaky line from Tehran.
And conversely, it would be considered far too sinful and tempting a prospect for many of the Iranian male grapplers to even consider, never mind risk, training with a woman – especially given the physically intimate nature of the sport.
Men and women often end up entangled together while sparring or "rolling." Photo courtesy of Leila
The popularity of jiu-jitsu has skyrocketed in recent years, with local academies and schools a mainstay of many cities across the world.
"For men and women in general, jiu-jitsu gives them a self-confidence to face any sort of situation you might be in life," said Roger Gracie, the grandson to the founder of the art—and by far the sport's most accomplished competitor of all time, with ten world championship titles to his name.
He spoke to Broadly as he wrapped up a class at the famed Roger Gracie Academy in West London. "Some take it for exercise, some people use it for sport, some to defend themselves. We have a student here, who a couple of weeks ago, she was attacked by two big guys in the street," he explained. "They tried to rob her, they threw to the floor and tried to grab her. But she was able to efficiently defend herself and to escape against two big guys.
"No matter how scary the situation might be," he added, "you know there is still a way out of it."
Never has the empowerment of sportswomen been more evident in the 21st century than the arena of combat sports. It is a domain driven entirely by the idea of superior technique and a meritocracy of skills. This concept has propelled the sport's biggest female athletes—the likes of judo Olympian Ronda Rousey and current Bantamweight Champion Miesha Tate—to heights equal to their male counterparts.
However, international sanctions in Iran have throttled any kind of BJJ scene from truly taking off in the Middle Eastern country, with many instructors preferring to base themselves in the likes of Brazil, the US, Europe and East Asia. A few kilometers over the Persian Gulf, BJJ has unofficially become the national sport of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), thanks to backing of Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed – though its female practitioners too face many of the same restrictions.
Leila in hijab and her jiu-jitsu suit. Photo courtesy of subject
Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Iran across the board is a relatively nascent affair, Leila explained, with only four or five small clubs dotted around entire country. Instead, many of the male martial artists have turned to YouTube instructional videos to try and piece together the grappling art. For women however, jiu-jitsu is practically non-existent, at least in the eyes of the law, with no system of learning in place.
She took two months off from training in London last year to fly home for her father's funeral. "I really lost my strength and my body wasn't moving the way like it did. It was really bad, and I didn't want to experience that again."
Now living and working in Iran's capital, Leila trains in secret with a BJJ practitioner of the opposite sex, who, like her, "just wants to roll."
After the partnership blossomed after a series of exchanges on private social media, the pair realized they shared a common desire to sharpen their respective skills. After they found a gym owner willing to turn a blind eye, they were began playing hide and seek with the city's morality police in order to train in the early hours of the weekend (which falls on Thursday and Friday in Iran) to avoid detection.
"We're not allowed to train together. The gym has to oblige by the Islamic rule. It's dangerous, if they see us they can close the whole gym."
I asked her what the punishment for her would be if anyone ever caught them training together.
She chuckled, almost half-defiantly, before conversing off the phone in rapid and fluent Farsi. "It's a corrupt country," Leila continued upon her return. "You would have to pay a penalty."
"Or a bribe actually," she added with a laugh. "You pay them like £200 or something like that, you bribe them and they will take you to the police station to write a declaration saying you were wrong and you wouldn't do this ever again. If you give them money it's okay."
The last time I met Leila in person, she told me how encrypted instant messaging service's had been the biggest help for the country's female martial arts community in flying under the radar from government snooping.
Life and training now under Iran's sharia law as a woman in Iran has been a complete culture shift from her previous life in London, "where nobody cares where you go and what you do."
Like the few other female grapplers in the country, it is an addict's mentality for the sport that has driven Leila to take these risks.
"I didn't come here to teach jiu-jitsu, or become a grappling champion, or start Iranian women's grappling," Leila explains. "I came here to train and I want to keep training. My goal is, if I save up money or anything, I would go and live in Brazil for four or five years and get my black belt. I wouldn't do it here."
Until then, women like Leila will continue to collude with other men and women in Iran's underground BJJ scene for willing training partners.
* Name has been changed
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