Sports and Religion, in Iran and in General: comments on comments made in a recent BBC show on the Protests in Iran

The liberatory protests in Iran have led Western journalists to pay attention to the women of Iran. As a person deeply interested in the lives of women across the ancient Mediterranean world, this has led to a boon of information for a researcher listening with an ethnographic ear. In large part this attention is due to the fact that the protests are still often mislabelled as women’s rights protests against Islam, when in fact they are human rights protests against a rightwing authoritarian regime that has cloaked itself in a misinterpretation of Islam popular among rightwing authoritarian types across the Muslim world.

A recent episode of BBC’s Heart and Soul, “The Iran Protests”, struck me as one of the best pieces on the protests. The source of its many strengths is no doubt due to the fact that the interviewer, Faranak Amidi, was raised in Iran herself.

Among the comments revelatory in different directions, two struck me particularly acutely.

First, an Iranian wrestler observed that the Iranian regime’s denial of sports to girls (and women) amounts to denying girls the chance to build confidence.

I was struck by that because back when I was in primary school, the sporty girls did come off as extra-confident, just as now my sporty students come off as self-assured. I hadn’t ever traced the source to their participation in sports. Actually I assumed it was the other way around, that confident girls try out for sports and make the teams because of their self-confidence. ….Says the gay guy who never played sports in school and who experienced consistent harassment during gym class, from peers and coaches alike.

But also that generalizing political interpretation is not necessarily going to be accurate in general, since there are many girls for whom sport-experiences are not as positive as they are for others, and these girls surely experience an extra debt of confidence as a result.

Second, a historian distanced herself from religious belief in the most direct yet tactful way I’ve ever heard. She said simply, “For me, as a historian, religion is a social and historical construct.” I’m so thankful for those words. A social and historical construct. Of course she immediately added the caveat that I always add to whatever less articulate thing I’ve said, declaring respect for other more observant folks and for their beliefs.

A social and historical construct. These are the exact words I’ve searched for for years to explain my view of religion, from my position as a lifelong anthropologist of religion (because even as a child religion was fascinating) and a scholar of ancient Mediterranean religions, whose own belief could be described as an atheistic agnosticism—as in, atheist unless the burden of proof is met that there is something beyond ourselves.

A social and historical construct. Also, sports are good for girls’ confidence!

Lastly, we ought all to be awed by every one of the Iranians taking to the streets knowing that they might not ever return home. Their courage is inspiring. To date two protestors have been through a formal trial and executed, but many hundreds have been killed summarily, without a sham trial or even an arrest.


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