Raha Akhavan, a 45-year-old trailblazing academic and determined open-water swimmer, is preparing for an extraordinary challenge aimed at raising awareness about the plight of the “brave” women of Iran who are fighting to have “their rightful rights” respected.
The US-born Akhavan will embark on August 31 on the 20 Bridges Swim around the island of Manhattan in New York, covering a distance of 48.5 kilometres.
In an interview with IranWire, she describes the oppression she faced as a girl and a woman in Iran, and pays tribute to the victims of the Islamic Republic’s bloody crackdown on last year’s nationwide protests demanding more freedoms and women’s rights, particularly those who have lost their eyes.
“Throughout my school and university years in Iran I felt all the pressure, oppression and brutality that these women were protesting against,” she says. “I always felt out of place and wrong in my own society because I didn’t fit in with the imposed standards.”
Akhavan is a professor at a private university in the vibrant Turkish city of Istanbul and specialises in Supply Chain Management and Business Analytics.
She previously lived in Colombia, South America, where she also served as a university professor.
Akhavan was born in the city of San Francisco, California, to parents of Iranian origin. As the 1979 Islamic Revolution was brewing, her parents decided to return to Iran when Raha was just three months old.
She pursued her higher education in the field of industrial engineering at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology at a time when the university’s swimming team was scouting for new members to join.
During her first year of competition, she showcased her prowess and determination, clinching a coveted university medal.
Her studies also took her to the United States, where she completed both her master's degree and doctorate. She gained valuable insights and expertise as an industrial engineer at Intel, further adding to her diverse skill set.
Akhavan embraced the joy of swimming from a young age. Her home in Iran had a pool in the yard where the boys and girls from the neighborhood came together to enjoy moments of fun.
“However, as my body began to undergo changes during adolescence, I was confronted with the imposition of societal norms and gender-based restrictions,” she tells IranWire. “Suddenly, I was told that I could no longer swim in the pool with the boys, despite having shared carefree moments with them. This treatment left me disheartened and frustrated.”
At the age of 18, she resumed swimming when she was recruited by the university’s team.
“During my university days, swimming was a cherished activity, but it came with certain restrictions,” she says. “To practice swimming, we spent one hour travelling to the swimming pool, where we then had the opportunity to swim for only one hour.”
Her August 31 challenge will commence in the early morning at Battery Park, and Akhavan will swim along East River, Harlem River and Hudson River, passing beneath 20 bridges linking Manhattan to Brooklyn and New Jersey.
The anticipated duration of this endurance swim is nine to 10 hours, depending on weather conditions, currents, marine traffic and the swimmer’s own physical limitations.
“I’m determined to undertake this swim with a deep purpose – to raise awareness about the plight of women in Iran, particularly those who have lost their eyes in the recent protests,” Akhavan says.
“Amidst a sea of distressing news, I’ve seen these brave women finding strength in each other, coming together despite their hardships. They adorn themselves with beautiful clothes [and] wear makeup that radiates hopeful energy.”
“Witnessing this display of strength and hope was profoundly motivating for me and propelled me to continue practising rigorously. At times, I was on the brink of giving up, but their resilience and spirit kept me going.”
“The challenges faced by Iranian women, either athletes or non-athletes, go beyond the imagination of the rest of the world.”
Throughout her swim around Manhattan, Raha will be accompanied by a support boat carrying an observer from New York Open Water, the body that will officially sanction the marathon swim.
Her coach will be in a kayak to guide her path. Every 45 minutes to an hour, she will briefly stop to ingest liquid containing carbohydrates and electrolytes, along with the banana or waffle, in order to sustain her energy levels.
Under the stringent rules of marathon swimming, Akhavan will be prohibited from touching the boat, the kayak or any person from the moment she enters the water until the swim is completed.
Her attire will be limited to a standard one-piece LYCRA (TM) or spandex swimsuit, goggles and a silicone swim cap.
The epic 20 Bridges Swim is part of the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, an ultra-marathon swimming challenge that also includes a successful solo completion of the Catalina Channel (between Santa Catalina Island and the Southern California mainland) and the English Channel.
Akhavan has already swum the Catalina Channel and says she is also planning to take on another challenge: swimming the English Channel in the near future.
As she began her training in the fall of 2022, Iran was rattled by popular protests sparked by the September death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
“As an Iranian diaspora, and a woman who grew up in Iran during the 80s and 90s I couldn’t help but deeply sympathise. I was taken to the same detention center [in Tehran] where Mahsa Amini was beaten to death – several times,” she said.
Inspired by a poignant photo of three young women who had lost an eye during the protests, Akhavan regained the strength to return to training.
During the interview, Akhavan recalled her meeting with Mercedeh Shahinkar, a young woman who was shot in the eye during a protest in October.
"Before my meeting with Mercedeh, I was overwhelmed with stress. How could I possibly console a girl who had lost her eye while courageously fighting for 'Woman, Life, Freedom'? The situation seemed insurmountable, and I felt at a loss for words.”
"However, upon meeting her, I was captivated by the dignity, serenity, strength and bravery emanating from her. It was a truly awe-inspiring experience. Mercedeh, together with others who sustained similar eye injuries, became an immense source of inspiration for me.”
"In her presence, there was no trace of regret or bitterness. Instead, she offered comfort and assurance that, even though everything cannot be fixed, they will persist and fight on with unwavering determination. Their indomitable spirits profoundly moved and uplifted me.”
While swimming around the waters around Manhattan, she will carry the hopes and aspirations of women like Shahinkar who bravely fight for their rights and will shine a spotlight on their indomitable spirit.
“I’m proud of all those women who are fighting for their rightful rights,” she says.