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From the cockpit to the boxing ring, these women defy stereotypes in Iran

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Fahimeh Ahmadi Dastjerdi checks the aircraft's controls after landing at Me
Fahimeh Ahmadi Dastjerdi checks the aircraft's controls after landing at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran June 1, 2017.
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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.

Sadaf Khadem lifts weights at her gym in Varamin, a small town outside Tehran on Jan. 4, 2017.
Sadaf Khadem lifts weights at her gym in Varamin, a small town outside Tehran on Jan. 4, 2017.

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.

Khadem shadow boxes at her gym Jan. 4, 2017.
Khadem shadow boxes at her gym Jan. 4, 2017.

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.

Afsaneh Jabbari competes in the 2018 championship -- her third win on Dec. 7, 2018. She is two months pregnant with her daughter, who was born in July.
Afsaneh Jabbari competes in the 2018 championship -- her third win on Dec. 7, 2018. She is two months pregnant with her daughter, who was born in July.

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.

Jabbari holds her infant daughter, Hanna, before receiving the gold medal at the Iranian Women\'s Motocross Championship in Tehran on Oct. 11, 2019.
Jabbari holds her infant daughter, Hanna, before receiving the gold medal at the Iranian Women\'s Motocross Championship in Tehran on Oct. 11, 2019.

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.

Fahimeh Ahmadi Dastjerdi checks the aircraft\'s controls after landing at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran June 1, 2017.
Fahimeh Ahmadi Dastjerdi checks the aircraft\'s controls after landing at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran June 1, 2017.

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.

Dastjerdi stands in front of Tehran\'s Azadi Tower, a symbol of freedom June 1, 2017. She asked to be pictured in this spot, saying women in Iran should fight for their rights and their freedom.
Dastjerdi stands in front of Tehran\'s Azadi Tower, a symbol of freedom June 1, 2017. She asked to be pictured in this spot, saying women in Iran should fight for their rights and their freedom.

"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.

Azadeh Seifi prepares for a photo shoot March 8, 2015.
Azadeh Seifi prepares for a photo shoot March 8, 2015.Mahya Rastegar

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.

Azadeh Seifi poses Jan. 8, 2019, in front of a mirror, which she often does to prepare herself for the camera. It is a ritual that helps her become more familiar with her facial expressions and improves her acting, she says.
Azadeh Seifi poses Jan. 8, 2019, in front of a mirror, which she often does to prepare herself for the camera. It is a ritual that helps her become more familiar with her facial expressions and improves her acting, she says.

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.

Doost, center, performs a fan form routine with fellow tai chi coaches in Niavaran Park in Tehran on April 27, 2018.
Doost, center, performs a fan form routine with fellow tai chi coaches in Niavaran Park in Tehran on April 27, 2018.

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.

Doost works out at a gym in Tehran on Nov. 30, 2018.
Doost works out at a gym in Tehran on Nov. 30, 2018.Mahya Rastegar

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.

Mahboubeh Adeli bowls with her friends at a recreation center in Isfahan on Jan. 5, 2017.
Mahboubeh Adeli bowls with her friends at a recreation center in Isfahan on Jan. 5, 2017.

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.

Adeli walks to one of the villages near Isfahan where she teaches the Quran to women and English to children Jan. 5, 2017.
Adeli walks to one of the villages near Isfahan where she teaches the Quran to women and English to children Jan. 5, 2017.

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.

Soudabeh Sabour has her eyebrows plucked at a beauty salon run by one of her students Oct. 8, 2014.
Soudabeh Sabour has her eyebrows plucked at a beauty salon run by one of her students Oct. 8, 2014.

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.

Sabour, who trains every day no matter where she is, does her morning exercise routine Sept. 22, 2014, while traveling with a friend in Talesh, in northern Iran.
Sabour, who trains every day no matter where she is, does her morning exercise routine Sept. 22, 2014, while traveling with a friend in Talesh, in northern Iran.
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