In the heat and humidity of Hawaii, competing in an Ironman covered from head to toe in an hijab isn’t ideal, but it was the only way Iranian Shirin Gerami could race for her country.
Gerami finished the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii — consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, ending with a marathon — in 13 hours and 11 minutes.
“It was an absolutely beautiful race,” she told NPR. “I was able to do one of the toughest endurance challenges in the world while being covered.”
But it almost didn’t happen. Gerami, who was born in Iran, started doing triathlons during her last year of college at Durham College in England. With the British triathlete field already crowded with athletes, a friend pushed her to compete for Iran, starting with the London Triathlon.
“So I phoned them up and said I’m an Iranian, I live in London and would it be possible to represent?” she says.
The Iran Triathlon Federation immediately said no, claiming that due to “sensitivities” they do not allow women to represent the country.
“I responded saying, ‘The main reason that you’re telling me that women can’t represent Iran in triathlons is because of clothes. So allow me to go find clothes and find a solution,’ ” she says.
Working with multiple designers in the sports world—including Roka, a U.S. swimwear company and Merooj, which makes Iran’s Olympic uniforms—Gerami crafted a hijab-like uniform for each portion of the triathlon that would hopefully pass muster with the Federation.
The night before the London triathlon, the Federation finally approved her uniform. “And I just fell on the floor after that phone call and cried,” she says.
Her race led to other Iranian women reaching out about competing as well, and the Iran Triathlon Federation considered it, but said no. While they allow women to represent the country in duathlons, where they just run and bike, the swimming portion of the triathlon is holding them back.
“They told me I’m allowed to continue representing, but for the moment I’ll remain the sole female triathlete,” Gerami says.
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Gerami once again had to get her uniform approved for the Ironman World Championship, and only got the okay three days before the race.
Though she doesn’t wear a hijab in her daily life, Gerami doesn’t mind wearing the covering during the race, even if the extra fabric does slow her down.
“In Iran, there are signs everywhere that say that covering, or the hijab, is not a hindrance — and it’s something I totally believe in,” Gerami says. “What you wear does not define who you are and what you can and can’t do. It’s just a piece of fabric.”