New RAGBRAI team of Muslim ‘female heroes’ gets rolling

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Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani weight lifter living in Atlanta (left), and Kiran Khan, an Olympic swimmer from Pakistan, show off their squatting ability with their bikes Sunday, July 19, 2015, during RAGBRAI in Washta, Iowa. (Michael Zamora/The Register)

Most riders are able to train for RAGBRAI without fear of arrest.

Not so for Mona Seraji. The pro snowboarder recounted how she had been arrested on her bike in Tehran, the Iranian capital where she lives.

Her offense? One centimeter of exposed skin at her ankle.

Seraji, 32, thought that she was adequately covered in a skintight body suit. But police confronted her on the streets of Tehran and hauled her to the station despite her protests. Her mom had to pick her up.

“I was super mad,” she said this week while catching her breath along the RAGBRAI route.

Seraji found her way to Iowa as part of Team Shirzanan, a new RAGBRAI group of female Muslim athletes from around the world. Organized with the help of another group of women, friends from the Urbandale High School Class of 1983, the team is a unique effort in cross-cultural sports diplomacy.

Seraji stood beneath a shade tree in downtown Washta and gestured to the passing parade of bicyclists: There certainly was plenty of exposed skin on display here, plus all manner of oddball outfits.

Seraji can travel about an hour from her home to reach the slopes where she thrills to the adrenaline rush of flying downhill on a snowboard.

“When I’m on a mountain, I’m free to do what I want,” she said. “That’s why I live in the mountains mostly.”

She also was the first Iranian woman to surf.

She’s less enthralled with endurance road biking, but Seraji said that her introduction to America on RAGBRAI has been wonderful.

Among her teammates this week is Kiran Khan, a swimmer from Afghanistan who fortified herself along the route with a turkey leg and plenty of lemonade. Shortly before RAGBRAI she finished her observance of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month of daily fasting. Each night after she broke fast, Khan trained for the ride in her home gym.

Fifteen members of Team Shirzanan – both the Urbandale friends and the international athletes – embarked Sunday morning on the route. They handed out their own red wristbands: “SHIRZANAN = Female Heroes.”

Amani Ammovia from Jordan is a competitive road bicycle racer. She trained in the Alps and routinely pedals long distances. So she was a powerhouse pace-setter.

So was Hajar Abulfazl, a soccer player and medical student from Afghanistan.

Kulsoom Abdullah, the dry wit of the group, is a Pakistani-American weightlifter who lives in Atlanta. She’s also the first female weightlifter from Pakistan. She lobbied the authorities in her sport and won the right for observant athletes to cover their skin in competition.

Raha Moharrak, a mountain climber, was the first Saudi woman to scale Mt. Everest and the novice biker of the group.

The women have been consolidating their prayers into the end of the day to make it more practical to navigate RAGBRAI. So far they’ve been met with support and curiosity from fellow bikers.

I rolled among Shirzanan for a stretch. Some of the Iowa riders pointed out the corn fields to Seraji. They also educated her about how the corn is a staple, convenient restroom.

You don’t even get arrested for that on RAGBRAI.

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Mark Gordon of Dubuque, Iowa, tests out the chain on Mona Seraji’s bike Sunday, July 19, 2015, during RAGBRAI in Washta, Iowa. Mona Seraji, a professional snowboarder and surfer from Tehran, Iran, is riding her first RAGBRAI with Team Shirzanan. (Michael Zamora/The Register)

Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or kmunson@dmreg.com. See more of his columns and video at http://ift.tt/1clBgfQ. Connect with him on Facebook (/KyleMunson) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).

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