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Last Updated: Monday, 16 August, 2004, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Iran's sportswomen adapt to religious custom
Miranda Eeles
BBC correspondent, Iran

Nassim Hassanpour, a teenage markswoman in the 10 metre air pistol event, is the sole female athlete the Islamic Republic of Iran sent to the 2004 Olympics. She was able to take part in Athens because shooting is one of the few events that allows Muslim women to wear the obligatory headscarf and long coat, thus respecting the cultural and religious values of the Iranian authorities.

Nineteen-year-old Nassim Hassanpour concentrates hard on the target in front of her. Her arm is still and her grip on the air pistol is steady. She fires and the bullet passes through the middle of the target. Her face remains impassive as she reloads.

In the weeks running up to the Games, Ms Hassanpour was working on her skills for more than six hours a day. The burden on her shoulders was huge.

Not only is she the only Iranian female taking part in the Olympics, she is also the youngest competitor on the team.

"Because I am representing Iranian women I feel special. I just want to deserve to be there and to achieve a good result. If I do, it might inspire other Iranian women," she says.

Future star

Her coach Javad Kuhpayezadeh says she has the qualities of a future star.

"Marksmen and women have to be able to have good levels of concentration, otherwise they cannot be successful. They also have to be physically fit and self confident," the coach explains.

You can't deny that hejab (Islamic dress) gets in the way
Firouzeh Zamani
Golf player
"She has all these qualities. She is also a gymnast so her body is well trained. We have high hopes for her at the next Games in China in 2008."

Shooting is not Ms Hassanpour's number one sport. Her passion is gymnastics but because of Iran's strict Islamic dress code, she cannot compete in it internationally.

So when talent scouts came to her sporting high school in Tabriz, north-western Iran a few years ago, she decided to follow their advice and take up marksmanship.

"I didn't choose shooting. I wasn't even interested in it as I had a different concept about what shooting meant. But I'd like to achieve something internationally for my country so that's why I decided to take it up."

Long coats and headscarves

Iran won't exempt women from wearing the required Islamic clothing for events such as the Olympic Games. The International Olympics Committee also has its own rules governing dress.

The result is that women are increasingly turning to sports such as golf and riding where the strict dress code can be adhered to in public.

It's very hard for women to reach a professional level here in Iran, for the very fact that they provide us with fewer facilities. Basically women are not valued the same as men
Nassim Hassanpour
At Enqelab sports club in the centre of Tehran, half a dozen women line up to practice their drive shots.

Dressed in loose scarves and long coats they say that although the bulky clothes are a hindrance in the heat they can at least play at all times of the day.

"You can't deny that hejab [Islamic dress] gets in the way," says Firouzeh Zamani, who has been playing golf for more than 10 years.

"But you adapt. For example I wear stretchy material which enables me to move freely and I tie my scarf behind my neck, not in front. It's a lot better than 10 years ago, so things are improving."

Limited access

The problems facing women in sport in Iran are not only about wearing the obligatory headscarf and long coat. Women still have limited access to facilities, with most clubs only open for them in the mornings.

At Tehran's largest sports club, there are six times more tennis courts for men than there are for women. The few that women can play on are covered.

"It's very hard for women to reach a professional level here in Iran, for the very fact that they provide us with fewer facilities," says Ms Hassanpour.

"Basically in our society, women are not valued the same as men. In the same way, here in sport, we have less, especially in my field where you need to have good equipment and a proper hall."

Some believe if flexibility is shown on both sides, then the situation for women athletes would improve.

"I think if we design a new dress code that will be accepted by the international authorities and stay within our laws, then I'm sure there would be other sports that our women can take part in," says Farideh Shojaie, deputy head of Enqelab sports club.

Competitions designed for Muslim women do take place. The Islamic Women's Games allows women to take part in all sports in normal attire.

There are just no male judges or spectators allowed to attend. But for those Iranian women whose hearts are set on an Olympic medal, the choice of sport will remain limited long after the games in Athens are over.

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