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TEHRAN, Iran — It takes a lot of courage and determination to conquer the 6 p.m. traffic from Gisha Street in east Tehran to the northern Velenjak neighborhood — even more so in the 100-something-degree heat of summertime. But 29-year-old Sahar Monadi is always up for the challenge.
She’s just one of the growing number of women embracing archery as a pastime here, taking archery classes at the Tochal Mountain Archery Club in Tehran.
Tochal is popular among Tehran residents looking for a break from the city. They come to hike, ski in the winter and even bungee jump. But over the past few years, more and more women are coming here to take up archery, said Karim Safaei, head of the Iranian Archery Federation. Safaei said women have, in fact, now overtaken men at the professional level.
“Women now excel at the international level more than men,” he said proudly, adding that many have brought back medals for the country and improved their rankings considerably.
For women, archery is simply practical in this Islamic republic. They can wear their full hijab and, because there’s not a lot of physical movement, they can practice in public, alongside men. In Tochal, men and women shoot on the same field.
Archery has become one of the few sports the Iranian government promotes for women. An ad covering half the page on the Iranian Archery Federation’s website reads: “Leave your children with us in 2010, and watch them compete at the Olympics in 2016.” Targeting parents directly, it promises a full-time training program along with housing. Even in small towns there are classes, local teams and archery competitions.
Archery has roots in Iranian history as well. One Iranian historian writes that “next to horsemanship, archery played a very important role throughout Iranian history ... the bow was used for war, for sport and for ritual purposes.”
In Iranian legend too, one of the most famous characters is Arash the Archer. Legend has it that the border between Iran and today’s Afghanistan was determined by the shooting of an arrow by Arash. For that, Arash used up all his strength and upon shooting he died. He is remembered as a hero.
While the legendary archer of Iran is a man, women today are the heroes of the sport.
Before taking up archery, Sahar used to come to the “roof of Tehran,” as locals refer to Tochal, to enjoy the scenery and clear her head.
“I used to sit on one of the benches and stare out into Tehran," she said. "I used to think, God, in every single apartment, there are people dealing with life, its hardships and so on. Being away from that, even for a few hours, felt good.”
Then one evening Sahar, along with one of her friends, walked into the archery club.
“I liked it so much that I decided to come every weekend. It’s always jam-packed on weekends,” she said. “I sense a calmness here that doesn’t exist anywhere in Tehran.”
At the World University Championship games in China this September, Vida Halimian won the gold medal in the women compound series. It was her third medal in the past year — along with two silvers she won in Turkey and China. Halimian said that although Iranian women are new to the game, they are already taking aim at their rivals.
“I have competed in six or seven international games,” she said. “But for some of my rivals this was their twentieth presence, clearly this gives them an advantage. But overall, we have been doing good.”
The Tochal club is nestled on the slopes of Alborz Mountain, which stands tall overlooking the city. The scene is unique, both at night and during the day as Tehran, the ever-growing megacity, reveals itself below.
At the archery club, Farzaneh Hemmati, a middle-aged woman and an accomplished archer herself, reminds Sahar and another archer to focus and to watch their form: straight arms, a powerful draw and follow through.
“Since we started the club eight years ago, women have poured in to take classes and some even have trained for international games,” she said. “Women who come here gain a lot of confidence. They can use that in their day to day life.”