They work as car mechanics, race through the desert on motorcycles or run successful companies: In a society in transition, Iran’s women challenge traditional role models and create facts outside of politics.

Motor sports enthusiast with a love for dogs – Mariam Talai

Mariam Talai is known beyond Iran’s borders. The 43-year-old became famous through her love for motorsport. The woman lived in Canada for more than 20 years, where she bought her first motorcycle in 2008. Talai toured thousands of kilometers through Africa before returning to her homeland in 2016. Women in motorcycling, that was unthinkable in Iran a few years ago. “Other athletes used to make fun of us,” says Talai. While more and more women are discovering motorsport for themselves, they are not officially allowed to get a motorcycle driver’s license.

Today the 43-year-old lives in Tehran, helps young entrepreneurs to gain a foothold in the automotive industry and is an animal rights activist. Eleven dogs, many with injuries and difficult pasts, live in her home. Incidentally, Talai runs an animal shelter in the wasteland around 100 kilometers outside of the metropolis. 150 dogs live there. It’s not always easy, she says. Dogs are considered impure in traditional Muslim circles.

Talai is often asked where she gets all her energy from. “Women don’t want to hide anymore and feel empowered to believe in themselves,” says Talai. Above all, the young generation that grew up with social media has changed. “Women in Iran are stronger, have more power because they fight for their own way.”

Sahar Biglari – lateral entry into the carpentry trade

Working in a male-dominated trade and therefore being underestimated is something Sahar Biglari knows only too well. In her carpentry business in western Tehran, the 41-year-old tells how, shortly before the start of the corona pandemic, she dared to start a new career as a career changer. It all started with a table that she wanted to buy but couldn’t find. Without further ado, she decided to build the object of her dreams herself.

The beginning was not easy. “Most of the reactions were bad, especially at the beginning when I bought wood.” Her Instagram page finally helped her break through. Like thousands of other women entrepreneurs, Biglari experienced a setback when the popular social network was blocked by the authorities in Iran last year. But that didn’t stop her from continuing to fight, she says.

Two car mechanics are living their dream

Two car mechanics have also become known through Instagram: Kiana Yarahmadi and Nilufar Farahmand, both 32 years old, have asserted themselves in the male domain. Skeptical looks from customers are now a thing of the past, as Yarahmadi says. “Today, customers come to us with their cars, and our presence on social media has created a certain amount of trust.”

That was not always so. In a roundabout way, the friends end up in the car industry. Yarahmadi, for example, first studied law before pursuing her love of technology. Mentors could not be found, after all, the two women were doing pioneering work as trainees. “The biggest challenge was learning in a male environment and not getting into trouble.” As an example, the 32-year-old cited finding work clothes that conform to Islamic dress codes.

The two women are ambitious, successful and nationally known. Nevertheless, they are thinking about emigrating to Germany, which enjoys a good reputation, especially among car lovers. “We wouldn’t have thought about it before,” says Farahmand. But: “As a woman in Iran, you hardly feel calm. Our rooms are getting smaller and smaller.”

In addition to the great political and social pressure that women in Iran are exposed to, the international sanctions are also a reason for their considerations. Spare parts are often expensive and difficult to obtain or can only be obtained indirectly. This leads to frustration at work. “There are electric cars abroad, but here we work on combustion engines every day, as if we had stopped in time.”

A female bodybuilder defies beauty ideals

Professional athletes are also fighting against firmly anchored role models. As one of the few bodybuilders in Iran, Sara Mustafanejad has repeatedly encountered resistance and sometimes had problems with the authorities. The strength athlete is in her early 40s, lives in a quiet suburb of the capital Tehran and has her own gym.

The muscular woman started her professional sports career about ten years ago. “It was quite natural as I come from a family of athletes,” says Mustafanejad. Swimming against the tide is not always easy. “If you are different as a woman in Iran, many things are not easy.”

Despite or perhaps because of the strict clothing rules, the beauty industry in Iran is booming. Mostafanejad is also concerned. “Women always want to be more beautiful and fitter and therefore undergo cosmetic procedures.” Today, the bodybuilder practices her sport more as a hobby, even if she is ambitious. There are no competitions for women anyway.