For the past five years, Iranian photographer Mahya Rastegar has documented Iranian women who are influential in their fields. Rastegar, who took up photography in her late 20s after her divorce in 2009, says she finds strength in documenting women’s life-affirming stories. These are some of their stories.
Sadaf Khadem, 24, is the first female Iranian boxer to compete – and win – internationally. In April, she defeated French boxer Anne Chauvin in France.
Always interested in sports, Khadem started playing basketball at age 9, but quickly developed a love of boxing as a teenager. For years, she practiced with friends in Tehran’s Taleghani Park and eventually signed up to learn professionally in 2013.
Originally from Tehran, Khadem attended Azad University north of the city and holds a bachelor’s degree in sports engineering.
Khadem says she wants young women in Iran to be able to achieve their goals, whatever those may be, and believes boxing will give them both the physical and the mental strength to do so.
She trained with her coach every Friday night at the gym in Varamin and coached girls in Tehran the rest of the week, but she hasn't returned to her country since April.
Since these photographs were taken in January 2017, an arrest warrant was issued against her for defying Iran’s strict dress code for female athletes. She was in France for a tournament at the time, and remains there today.
Afsaneh Jabbari, 36, is a motocross rider and the winner of the Iranian Women’s Motocross Championship three years in a row. She trains every day at a track in Tehran where she met her husband, also a motocross rider, in 2016. They married only a few months after meeting and Jabbari says he has had a huge influence on her career, being unwaveringly positive and attending all her training. She credits his positive energy with helping her succeed.
Jabbari rode a motorcycle for the first time with her father when she was 18 and practiced with his bike before finding a professional coach and getting her own motorcycle. She says she loves the excitement and the adrenaline rush of the sport.
Fahimeh Ahmadi Dastjerdi, 37, is the first Iranian woman to become a flight engineer and the first female pilot of an Airbus 320 aircraft in Iran.
Despite Iran's patriarchal culture, Dastjerdi was able to work her way into the male-dominated profession in 2005, starting first as a flight engineer and then as a pilot with Iran Air. She now flies with Meraj Airlines.
After logging thousands of hours in the skies, Dastjerdi sees the gender inequality in her profession firsthand, with men hired over women again and again. But she sees no difference in ability. If anything, she says, women are even more meticulous about their responsibilities on the flight deck.
“I wanted to be an actress since I was a child,” says Azadeh Seifi, 30, who grew up in Mashhad, 450 miles east of the capital Tehran, where there were few acting opportunities. It wasn’t until 2012 that Seifi, who studied civil engineering, moved to Tehran to take acting classes while teaching English.
Seifi landed small roles in plays and on the small screen before the popular television series “Pardeh Neshin” put her on the map. Seifi played in flashback scenes of the lead character Hoda, who returns to Iran to claim her inheritance years after abandoning her daughter and moving to Canada with her teenage sweetheart.
Parisa Mihan Doost, 33, is a tai chi coach and the gold medalist at the 2019 Iranian National Tai Chi competition.
Doost wasn’t always athletic. For years, she says, she struggled with her weight, and when she ended an unhappy relationship several years ago, she vowed to turn her life around. Over the course of nine months and with countless hours at a gym, she lost almost 100 pounds and eventually started working as a trainer herself.
In 2018, Doost became a tai chi coach, giving private lessons to students in Tehran. "Sports has given me calm and serenity and has made me a warrior woman," she says.
Mahboubeh Adeli, 26, teaches Farsi, Quran studies and English in and around Isfahan, in central Iran. She wasn’t always religious, but while in college at Azad University she became more interested in her Islamic faith. Ultimately she enrolled in seminary school to study “Talabegi,” or religious classes, and started wearing the traditional hijab head covering worn by many Muslim women.
Although the hijab is widely considered to be socially conservative, Adeli doesn’t see it as an obstacle to having fun and believes women should be able to be successful no matter how they dress.
Adeli works in primary schools in Isfahan teaching Farsi. Once a month, she visits nearby villages, teaching women how to read and interpret the Quran, as well as tutoring children in English.
Soudabeh Sabour, 55, is a professional bodybuilder, women’s bodybuilding coach and a teacher at a bodyguard training organization.
She suffered from depression after her divorce 12 years ago, suddenly finding herself on the wrong side of a society that strongly disapproves of it. Motivated by the need to independently care for her son, 10 at the time, she says she dug her way out of that depression through sport, first with self-defense classes and then with bodybuilding and coaching.
It is often difficult for divorced women in Iran to find work, and when they do, their relationships with male colleagues in particular are strained because of the taboos around separation.
Sabour worked in graphic design but left to become a bodybuilding coach after several difficult years – a decision that transformed her, and her son’s, way of life. She says she has been able to teach him through example invaluable lessons about independence and strength.