Pushing Boundaries – Women’s Climbing in Iran

by Natalie Berry - UKC May/2016

Farnaz is 27 years old and lives in Zanjan, Iran. She is a member of the Iran national climbing team and works as a climbing coach for women and girls to raise funds in order participate in international competitions. Unlike Shirin, Farnaz's focus on competitions requires her to train in the city, where compliance with social law restricts her access and opportunities. This season, she is training at The Boulders Climbing Gym in British Columbia, Canada.

"I was always alone, just with my belief and my parents and people who loved me encouraging me."

Tell us a bit about how you got into climbing?

Fortunately I was lucky enough to be born into an athletic family. My parents were both mountaineers. Also, my younger brother is a big wall climber, so I had climbing roots in my family and really wanted to start when I was young.

What have you achieved in competitions so far?

Climbing was not just a sport for me, I learned lots of things through it and now I’m living for climbing. When I started I was weak and no one believed in me. I learned how to overcome my weaknesses and make my body and my mind stronger. I had lots of problems to continue with it, but but overcoming them all made me a stronger girl. After a year of starting climbing, I could join the national team and every year I had better performances with lots of gold medals in national competitions, internationals, Asian championships and good results in World Cups. I achieved lots of goals in this way and made my family happy. I encouraged others to follow their dreams and that’s very valuable to me.

Farnaz competes internationally in lead and speed climbing, 62 kbFarnaz competes internationally in lead and speed climbing
© John Welch Photography

How easy or difficult is it for women to get into sport and exercise in Iran - especially competitions - and for what reasons?

In recent years women's sport has become more popular than before. Yet still from the perspective of society climbing is a difficult sport and tough for girls and it’s not really 'normal' yet. We have lots of climbing gyms and areas for outdoor climbing, but the situation for pro athletes as a girl is a little harder. As we have limited time to train (we train separate to men at different times and can’t train with them). For example, I never had a coach and learned from lots of studying and watching climbing movies. I don’t have any serious rivals in my country and it’s hard to stay motivated for years. No one supports me to compete in World Cups and I don’t have any sponsors - I spent all of my prize money buying flight tickets to take part in competitions. I was always alone in this way, just with my belief and my parents and people who loved me encouraging me.

Farnaz bouldering in Iran, 169 kbFarnaz bouldering in Iran
© Farnaz Esmailzadeh

How difficult is it for women to go rock climbing outdoors - are there extra barriers to climbing outdoors?

I guess outdoor climbing is not difficult at all and we have more freedom to go to the crags and don’t need to go at a separate time and gain permission to climb. It’s harder when you want to compete and you need money, facilities and need to train many times a day on a wall (especially a speed wall) and you can’t.

Farnaz off the starting blocks in Canada, 110 kb
Farnaz off the starting blocks in Canada
© Christian J. Stewart

You have mentioned offering women's coaching classes to raise funds to attend international competitions - have these classes been popular?

Not as popular as in other countries, usually parents are fearful of climbing and they think it’s not safe for kids. I tried to change their way of thinking. Honestly I can’t earn enough money from coaching. I just want to be useful and help others to progress and know more about climbing.

Cultural issues aside, do you think women climbing together can have advantages over climbing with men? In the UK, the situation is reversed: we try hard to organise events to bring female climbers together, as most women find they have to climb with exclusively male partners due to a lack of women participating in climbing.

On the one hand it's good, because you can find a female partner who is similar to you and you can match your training plan relative to female strengths and weaknesses. But on the other hand, if you have bigger goals, you can’t get enough progress with this situation. In all, I think it really depends on your perseverance.

Farnaz: 'Climbing was not just a sport for me.', 112 kbFarnaz: 'Climbing was not just a sport for me.'
© Christian J. Stewart Photography

Do you think allowing women to become more involved in watching sporting events will encourage participation?

Of course, fortunately everything is improving. It can help women to become more interested in sport. If they watch competitions they will find themselves and their goals. Some people are really talented and they don’t know it! They just need a little encouragement to find a way to grow and flourish.

"When you’re climbing in Iran, you’re trying to find yourself and you don’t care about society's old-fashioned views about doing an unusual sport as a woman."

Have times changed since you were growing up - are there more women climbing indoors and outdoors today than before?

Sure, when I was young no one knew about climbing and I never had a coach, good facilities or a good wall to climb on. But now it’s more popular. I’m coaching kids and younger climbers, we have more gyms, more national competitions for all ages and everything has improved over the years. I’m hopeful for the future of climbing in Iran, especially for female climbers.


Farnaz becoming Iranian National Champion

© Farnaz Esmailzadeh

What does climbing bring to you that you don't get to experience in everyday life?

Climbing made me a warrior who will never surrender. I learned I can be my own hero or even a hero for others if I try hard enough for my goals and desires, I learned there isn’t any limitation in this world and that my situation can’t be a barrier between me and my goals. It’s just a difference in the way of thinking that can make our life difficult.

How can climbing empower women in Iran, in your opinion?

When you climb you feel more courage and confidence within yourself. When you’re climbing here you’re trying to find yourself and you don’t care about society's old-fashioned views about doing an unusual sport as a woman, it’s a pure power of body and mind that everyone needs to feel.


'Climbing made me a warrior who will never surrender.'

© Farnaz Esmailzadeh

What are your personal goals in your climbing?

To improve my climbing abilities, become the first Persian girl on a world podium, to break my personal best and Asian record on the standard speed wall, to compete more and win more medals, enjoy outdoor climbing, consistently rank in top 10 for speed climbing world cups and improve my world-ranking. To promote the sport of climbing to a wider community and lead and inspire others in my country and around the world.


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