From Iran to France, how Sadaf Khadem became a boxer and champion of women’s rights
From basketball to boxing, and then to personal training, Sadaf Khadem has taken an unorthodox route in the world of sport.
It is a strange journey geographically too, beginning in the Iranian capital of Tehran and ending in the coastal village of Royan in southern France.
As a student Khadem majored in physics and mathematics, but decided to pursue a sporty path that resulted in her becoming a personal trainer, traveling to Dubai at the age of 20 to obtain a coaching certificate from the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness.
Now 27, she is now a personal trainer, studies commerce and has recently founded her own clothing line.
But it has not been an easy journey for Khadem, who faced many obstacles while concentrating on sport.
The first was finding a boxing instructor and a location to train. A three-hour round trip sorted that one out.
Then there was the issue of no boxing federation for women existing in Iran to regulate the sport.
She said: “A lot of men train with women without any regulations set by any organization, and there is a lot of violence. In France or other countries, there is a federation that regulates things so it is more difficult to commit violent acts, but that’s not the case in Iran.”
Khadem told Arab News that after a bad experience with her first boxing coach in Iran, she stopped the sport for a year. She then resumed with the coach of the Iranian national team.
In 2019 she became the first female boxer from Iran to fight in France.
She added: “After training with the Iranian national team coach, I searched everywhere in order to participate in a boxing match. I tried Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and, in the end, I sent a message on Instagram to coach Mahyar Monshipour and asked him if he could organize an official match and he agreed.
“I knew that it would be important because I was the first female boxer who wanted to participate in an official amateur boxing match. I knew that a lot of media outlets would want to cover the event, but I did not imagine it would be that big.”
Eventually Khadem moved to France with the help of Monshiphour, a French-Iranian former World Boxing Association champion.
She succeeded in taking part in her first official bout abroad, but ever since has had difficulties returning to Iran.
French laws meant she had to remove her hijab during fights, which led to her receiving threats from the Iranian regime, hastening her decision to live in forced exile in France. She has since decided to stay in the country voluntarily.
She said: “The first year was very difficult. I did not speak French, it was like coming from a different planet.
“I did not know the rules nor the culture here. Everything was different. On top of that I was on my own, without my family and without any money.
“The forced exile was only for a year and, after that, it was I who chose to stay in France. Journalists always say that I am a refugee, but I am not. I live here now willingly. I have my residency and my Iranian passport.”
Khadem was afforded freedom and protection in France. She added: “I am not saying that it is paradise and that there are no issues here, but compared to a country like Iran, I am freer.
“I lived in Iran so I know what it is like to be a woman living there. I remember when I was 16 years old and I wanted to train with men because I hated being a woman in Iran.”
Reporters in France used to ask her to comment on the political situation in her homeland but she always refused.
She said: “I never answered their questions because I would be putting my family in danger as they still live in Iran.
“Iran is not like France; we are not free to express our political opinion. I refused to give any interview until what happened a few weeks back with Mahsa Amini.
“I don’t reject the fact that I am Iranian, I am proud to be Iranian, but with all the kindness and freedom that I have experienced here in France, I would only go to visit today to see my family and friends. I cannot live there.”
Khadem sold one of her apartments in Iran and invested the money in her own clothing line. She hopes her example can empower women in her home country.
She added: “I am not a hardcore feminist who is against men, but human rights are important to me.
“The life of women there is different from other countries. I want to motivate women. I have spent a lot of money on my company and I haven’t made any profit, but I am proud.”
Khadem had not wanted to get involved in politics but was compelled to do so following the death of Amini, who was killed by the Iranian morality police after taking off her hijab.
She said: “I started posting about it on my Instagram account, not out of compassion because I am Iranian but because logically it is not OK to kill people in 2022, whether men or women, for a piece of cloth. I don’t accept this and I fight for human rights.
“Following the death of Mahsa Amini, there were over 100 others killed. The Iranian government has brought in its proxies living in other countries to kill its people.
“It pains me that people are protesting and the price that they are paying is their lives.
“People are protesting for democracy, to have a country where they can live more freely.”
She added: “We are only making noise and we cannot accompany the people in Iran. The price that we are paying here in France is a bit of tiredness. After that we go back home peacefully.
“The price that people are paying in Iran is their lives and I am not OK with that. That is why I suggested that the best solution would be an online protest and launching cyberattacks because everything is shared on social media these days.”
Khadem believes that strategy is very important at this stage, and says that most Iranians living in France do not realise what the regime is capable of.
She said: “You can protest but you must have a strategy and a path for everything you want in life. To run a country or make changes in a country is a big deal.
“If I don’t speak up today I will regret it tomorrow. I stand by the Iranian people until the day Iran becomes free. I am their soldier, I am a champion in the eyes of the Iranian people. I stand by them until the end for freedom and for human rights.”