A woman who made a difference: Mahsa Torabi

In fact this interview was meant to be special for International Women Day but due to some technical problems I couldn’t publish it. There is an Iranian woman Mahsa Torabi who I would be happy to talk about. A woman who contribute to make the world a little better.

When Iran hosted its first marathon called “I Run Iran”, women were not allowed to compete. But as you might know despite the ban, there was a woman who completed the event! Mahsa run the race! She is now ambassador of Free to Run in Iran. She is also working for women rights in the different fields. She believes in herself, puts her heart what she is doing and tries to encourage women all over the world. She is running, cycling and climbing, she is working to provide sports opportunities for women in her country.

I met Mahsa during my tour, when I was in Tehran. My host’s invited me to join the meeting of mountaineering and cycling club that she is also a member of. Mahsa was there too and luckily she accepted to answer my questions.

Let’s Read Mahsa Torabi’s Story

Dear Mahsa, can you please tell me a little about yourself?

I am Masha Torabi. I am 43 years old. (She looks like 30 mostly!) I am interested sport. I started rock climbing and mountain climbing when I was 40 years old. I am also a cyclist. I did my first trip in Iran about 12 years ago at time that any women could go on a trip by bicycle.

You are currently working on a project about Silk Road. Why did you choose the Silk Road? Could you please tell us a little about it?

Yes we have a project with Alireza about the Silk Road. We are searching for the branches of Silk Road and point them on the GPS and we’ve already found some spoons, wheels and many other ancient things. Only one part of the road in Iran remains and after we finish this one we will go to other countries. 

I choose Silk Road because it was my childhood dream. When I was a child I told my father “Dear father, I want to be a Marco Polo!” My father’s job was in a market but at the same time my parents were farmers. In our farm we grow up with Silk Road and when I watch Marco Polo on TV I realized that Marco Polo trips in the Silk Road. Then I went to my mother and I told my mother “Mother, I need a dress like Marco Polo has!” and she made a dress for me! After that I started playing games pretending Marco Polo.

After I finished my studies I came to Tehran and get a job, started working. After a while I realized this is not what I want, what I need, it is not good for me. Yes, I had a job and I was making money but it was not satisfying me. I started thinking about myself. I was always working. I was working in my office; I was working in my house. When I went back to my childhood I remember that I wanted to be Marco Polo. 

Then what happened? 

I went a bike shop to buy a bicycle and after I purchased a bike the salesman asked me if I needed a taxi to bring my bike to my home. And I said “No! I want to cycle!” He answered me “No, it is not good for you to cycle as a woman.” I said that I bought my bike because I want to cycle it and I cycled from the shop to my house.

As I remember I bought my bicycle on Monday and Friday I went to a trip. The city I went was close to Tehran, only 40 km away. In the city police stopped me. They thought I was a foreign. They brought me to the police station and there was a soldier who could speak English. We talked to each other in English for a while and then he asked me where I was from and I said, “I am from Iran.” He was like “What? Why are you speaking in English?” My answer was “Because you are speaking in English!”

Why did they stop you anyway?

It is because this city is a small city and very religious and there are lots of refugees and people from other countries which makes this city a little dangerous. They told me to go back to Tehran and I just said “Okay, no problem” and they followed me. After an hour I realize they are not following anymore and I went to the ancient places that I wanted to visit.

After I came back to the city police found me again. They brought me to the police station again and I told them if they damage my bicycle I would call the newspapers from Tehran and let all Iran know about what they did. They said the only thing they want from me is to promise them not to cycle. Of course I said, “No, I will cycle and I also have my card, permission from a cycling federation, you cannot stop me.”

Is it forbidden for a woman to cycle to other cities? I mean why did you need permission from the cycling federation

I don’t need a permit, I could go on a trip but I wanted to open a way for other woman too. It is not forbidden but it is very strange for people. Even for cycling federation. I went to cycling federation to ask for a certificate for going other cities to cycle but it took 3 months negotiation for getting certificated and they told me a woman is not allowed go on a trip to other cities alone. They thought it was dangerous to cycle and stop on the road and sleep in a tent. I tried to explain them it is not dangerous and I said if they don’t let me go I will go anyway.

After 3 months, they gave me my card and they told me to let my friends know from now on they would issue card for women too. Then I started my trip in Iran because it is important for me. I went to south of Iran, north of Iran and many other cities with my bicycle.

How about running? You have also played a crucial part in the acceptance of women to marathons. Actually, you run a marathon which women are not accepted. Can you tell us a little about that?

Yes, I did. In fact, I started running this year and I am not a professional runner. I wasn’t even running in that time I just run to open a way for women as I said. It was the first international marathon in Iran and our government didn’t let women join the marathon. Not only Iranian women, it was also forbidden for women from foreign countries. I had many friends who called me and told me “Mahsa, please do something because we want to run marathon in your country.” A person, Sebastian, who was holding this marathon, was not Iranian. He was from Netherlands.

I wrote a letter to him and told him to accept women to participate as well. He answered and told me it was not about him. It was Iranian authorities that didn’t let women to compete and he couldn’t get acceptance for women. I called athletic federation to discuss the situation and they asked me if I am aware of which country I live in. *laughs*

You know, when I want to go on a trip by bike, they told me I cannot do it but now I am doing it so we can change it for running too. After a month Sebastian called me and told me that he needed my help because now Iranian authorities didn’t let him even hold a marathon in Iran. Then I become like an agent of him. Ali Reza, and me we communicate to athletic federation and during a month we went there every single day because it was very important for us. We also had to explain them how it is good for Iran. At the end, they accepted to hold a marathon and signed an agreement letter but didn’t accept women to participate because they thought women would take off their hijab during the run since it is too hot.

We went to Shiraz three days before the marathon. The head of athletic federation came there too. He told us “Sorry but it is not possible to held this marathon here.” It was shocking because everything was ready, many people registered from other countries and they came to Shiraz to join this marathon. It was so crazy. I told him that many times they changed the way of the race and I said no problem but now it is not acceptable.”

In the morning I went to start point of marathon two hours before it started. It was 5 am in the morning. I started running. Some authorities saw me running. They stopped me and asked me why I was running and I told them “I like running and testing myself. I am just running for myself not for the marathon, the race has not started yet.” I talked to them very friendly. They gave me food and water. I didn’t say anything bad when police stopped me because there is no point to fight to them. If I fight to them I cannot open a way for women. After one hour they let me go and complete the race.

But why did they make you wait for an hour?

Because while I was running there were many cameras following me and taking pictures. They didn’t want anyone to take a video or photo. But they couldn’t help it anyway. There are lots of photos on the Internet including BBC.  

Did you have any problem after this news?

After BBC published news about it, one of our governmental newspapers wanted to interview me and I said “Why not?” They asked me “Why did you run? Are you protesting government?” I told them “No, it is not protesting. I am running only for peace. I am running to show the world that a Muslim woman can run 42 kilometers.” On the other side, my friends from Canada, Germany, and France they were really excited about it. They called me Kathrine of Iran. (Kathrine Switzer, first woman who run the Boston Marathon.) 

What happened after this marathon? Do the authorities of Iran let women run now?

After that I also participate in ultra marathon, which is held in Iran for the first time. A person who organized the ultra marathon was Italian and he got approval for women to participate! But I was the only Iranian woman who participates. It was 250 kilometers at the hottest point of earth. 

Once, I wanted to make a running organization in the peace day starting from the War Museum to Peace Museum in Tehran. The distance between two museums is just 12 kilometers. I wrote 15 letters to 15 organizations to getting approval and none of them answered. Alireza and me went to War Museum to say hi to manager of the museum. He was surprised. I told him I already wrote them but they never responded. They asked what I wanted. I told them we want to run women and men together for the international peace day. They said okay and approved. After two days we were running in this route. We also held another race for both women and men. Now I am working on a race which is ice running, on ice.  

What you are doing is so inspirational. There are many women who are supporting women rights but not all of us can do things to change the world. Because in deep down, we are scared. Have you ever scared to go to the jail?

I never thought about the jail. It is because I never fight. I talk to police very politely and friendly and most of the time I try to agree with them We shouldn’t argue. We should explain what we think kindly.

I know you have many friends supporting you. What does your family think of the things you are doing?

After the marathon my father called me and said me “Congratulations!” He is supporting me all the time. I told you my childhood dream. When I bought my bike to make this dream come true, my father also bought some stuff for me. He is very supportive.

Do you consider yourself as a feminist?

Not really, no. I am not a feminist. I am just working for equality.

I know that you are also working in other fields for women rights. You are visiting other countries for the same reason as well. Can you please tell us about it?

Yes. My friends from other countries wanted me to go to Afghanistan because women in Afghanistan have so many limitations in their daily life. Since our language is same they thought we could help them. Of course I accepted this offer to encourage women. We have many friends in Afghanistan. Some of them are very young. They sometimes want to go streets to protest but when you consider the policy in Afghanistan soldiers may kill them. I wrote them and said, “Please don’t go to street because it is dangerous. If you want to change something you should study, start with education.” When my friends suggest me to visit Afghanistan I went there and give them information about mountaineering, cycling, running. We also had a meeting that I told how they could improve themselves. The first steps are to study, to get a job and to have an economical freedom.

Do you have any suggestions for people who are working for women rights

First of all they should believe that they can do it. They can make their dreams come true. It is possible. We can do it. The other important thing is the power of talking. They shouldn’t argue with people. They should explain what they believe in.

Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

 It was my pleasure, thank you too.

Click here to read more about why she run the marathon.

Click here for more info about Free to Run.

Click here to follow Mahsa on Instagram.

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