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Iranian Female Handball Player Defects Because of 'Restrictions'

FILE - A Spanish flag flies in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 12, 2021. Iranian handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri defected to Spain in December 2021.
FILE - A Spanish flag flies in Madrid, Spain, Oct. 12, 2021. Iranian handball player Shaghayegh Bapiri defected to Spain in December 2021.

Shaghayegh Bapiri, an Iranian handball player who defected to Spain this week, told VOA Persian on Thursday that she saw no future for women handballers in Iran if conditions for players do not change.

Bapiri, 30, has been a constant fixture on the Iranian women's national handball team and at the Iranian government funded Sepahan Club since 2015 and was one of Iran's most experienced players at this week's 25th International Handball Federation Women's World Championship in Spain.

On Wednesday, she left the Sercotel Sorolla Palace Hotel where the Iranian women's national handball team had been staying in Valencia and announced her intention to seek asylum. The other members of Iran's national women's handball squad left Spain on Thursday. Bapiri was not among them.

In her first interview since defecting, she told VOA that "restrictions imposed" on the women's sport in the Islamic republic led to her decision not to return home.

This means her family will likely have to forfeit some $35,000 (15 billion Iranian rials) she was forced to put up as collateral before she was allowed to leave Iran. Iran's government sometimes requires traveling athletes to use personal assets as collateral to ensure their return home.

"If there was no hefty collateral, no one would return," she said, speaking in her native Farsi.

In an interview this week, a tearful Bapiri talked about "insurmountable pressures on women sports, there are a lot of discrepancies between male and female sports in Iran … this difference I cannot accept."

The former national squad's top scorer mentioned that just before the tournament, she was reprimanded by Iran's Handball federation for a "like" on an Instagram story that was critical of their taking part in the Spain tournament. She also said the mandatory head gear required by the federation was an obstacle to her performance.

"In our first match, my hijab was pulled by the competition. The federation official yelled at me after the match. I had no control over it. I cannot accept to be treated as such by the federation," she told VOA.

In Spain, Iranian Handball Federation President Alireza Pakdel denied the accusations made by Bapiri. In an interview with VOA Persian, the president said instead, the athlete's actions "put all the Iranian female athletes at risk of not being sent for international competitions."

There have been high-profile Iranian athlete defections before. Mina Alizadeh, a former member of Iran's women national rowing team, defected in 2010. Olympian medalist Kimia Alizadeh, no relation to Mina, did not return home after leaving Iran on a tourist visa. The athletes' families are still living in Iran.

Bapiri was born in the city of Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan province in Iran. She described abuse she has received for being part of Iran's Sunni Muslim minority and an ethnic Iranian Kurd.

"If you're a Kurd and Sunni, you get a different treatment in Iran. You're constantly ridiculed for being a Sunni. I cannot take that anymore. I am a human being," she said.

Iran's mistreatment of its religious and ethnic minorities is regularly highlighted by the State Department in its annual country report.

Bapiri told VOA that she has no regrets about her choice and plans on pursuing her education without feeling the pressure of being constantly monitored or harassed about what she posts on social media.