LONDON: An Iranian-born wrestler based in Scotland says she has received threats from the regime in Tehran for protesting wearing the hijab.
Melika Balali, 22, left her home country in November 2021 and won a gold medal at the British Wrestling Championships in Manchester in June representing Scotland, where she held up a sign that read “stop forcing hijab, I have the right to be a wrestler” on the winners’ podium.
She said she had since lost contact with her family, and the regime had used social media to attack her, forcing her to require police protection.
“They’ve tried to find where I’m living and who I’m practising with,” she told the BBC. “But thanks to police in Scotland … I live safely, I train in a safe area — I have all kinds of security.
“The first time I wore a singlet in Manchester, my family stopped talking to me. They think they are ashamed of me.
“But I’m happy because I decided to be this kind of person. These threats make me stronger. When I receive threats from the government of Iran I just think my way is right — if I were wrong, why would they threaten me?”
Mandatory wearing of the hijab for women in Iran has become an explosive issue after protests erupted nationwide in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police after she was arrested and beaten for wearing one incorrectly.
Balali said she had been made to wear the hijab by her parents from a young age, and was not allowed to pursue wrestling as a career despite it being a tradition among the men in her family.
In 2018, the Iranian Wrestling Federation created a women’s team but required contestants to wear body suits covering their hair, torso and thighs.
“It’s not just the dress code,” Balali said of her decision to leave Iran to pursue her career. “You see the dress covering the face, the head scarf, but it’s not just the clothes. You mentally cover your mind.
“But when I’m here and wearing a singlet I feel free. Not because I’m free to do wrestling, because I’m not wearing three layers of clothes — but because I’m free to think, free to build something that is for me.”
Balali, now living in Edinburgh, said being threatened was “terrifying” but it had not stopped her continuing to protest in solidarity with women in Iran.
As well as the sign in Manchester, she recently shaved her head at a protest in Glasgow — a reference to the protests many Iranian women are engaging in back home.
“Their strength increases my energy, my potential to go for my next gold medal,” she said. “It’s not only about the gold, it’s about what I’m talking about. I’m using that platform to talk — if that platform is big my voice will be louder. The strength comes from my homeland.
“I lived in Iran for 18 years, but I didn’t have any life. I didn’t feel anything. When I abandoned Iran I came to Scotland and started thinking here — with this thinking I’m alive.”
Police Scotland told the BBC that it was aware of online threats made in July. “Enquiries were carried out and a safety plan is in place,” it said.