By Andrew Hanna
Iranian Olympian Kimia Alizadeh defected on January 11 in protest of the regime’s treatment of women. The taekwondo athlete, who won a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, said she would not return from her training in the Netherlands and would remain in Europe.
Alizadeh announced the news in an Instagram post published alongside a black-and-white photo depicting her draped in the Iranian flag. In the caption, she called herself “one of millions of oppressed Iranian women.”
The Olympic athlete criticized the Iranian government for using her athletic achievements for political purposes while ignoring calls by women for greater civil liberties.
“They even sacrificed my medals and victories for their oppressive dress code and hijab,” she said, per a translation by the Daily Wire. “I was not important to them. None of us were. We were just tools.”
Human rights advocates said Alizadeh’s experiences reflected those of Iranian women who have faced gender discrimination by authorities. “Kimia is voicing their frustrations and complete lack of respect from Iranian officials for their demands and grievances,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency reported domestic “shock” at the news and said Alizadeh intended to compete at the Tokyo Olympics but not under the Iranian flag. Alizadeh won international acclaim in 2016 as the first Iranian woman to win an Olympic medal. She defeated Sweden’s Nikita Glasnovic to claim the third-place spot.
“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 at the time. Alizadeh even carried the Iranian flag during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Asian Games.
The participation of women in sports has been a rallying cry for women’s rights activists in Iran. In September 2019, a female soccer fan committed suicide after she was arrested for attending a match and faced a prison term of six months to two years. Domestic outrage by Iranian women coupled with international pressure forced the government to allow women to attend soccer games for the first time in nearly four decades.
As the country’s most prominent female athlete, Alizadeh was the highest profile defection from Iran in several months. In July 2019, Paralympics archer Pourya Jalalipour sought asylum in the Netherlands. And in December, Judo athlete Saeid Mollaei defected to Mongolia after being ordered to throw a semi-final match in the 2019 World Judo Championship to avoid facing an Israeli athlete in the finals.
The female bronze medalist defended her decision to leave Iran as necessary to live a “happy and healthy life.” She recounted a time when an official admonished that a woman “should not stretch her legs” even as the government pointed to her athletic accomplishments as a national achievement.
“They dictated the way I should dress and every sentence that they asked me to say, I repeated,” she said. “At any time they wanted, they paraded me around.”