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Last Updated: Friday, 9 December 2005, 04:04 GMT
Sport and the scarf
By Jenny Steel
BBC Radio 4

It looked for a moment as though we had come all the way to Tehran for nothing.

Islamic Women's Games
The Islamic Women's Games are conducted under strict Muslim rules
A tiny lady in a long black cloak resolutely blocked our path as we tried to get into the arena for the first match of the Islamic Women's Games indoor football event: Britain versus Iraq.

Chattering into a James Bond mike clipped onto her headscarf, she demanded to know if we had cameras. No - we opened our bags, emptied our pockets.

On seeing that we had no intention of breaking the strict no-photography rule, a welcoming smile transformed the face of the unlikely security guard, and she ushered us through.

No men are allowed inside the sports arenas at this event, which means that Muslim women can take off their Islamic covering - the hijab - and compete in shorts and t-shirt.

The ban on women appearing in public without their hijab is so strict in Iran that photos are not allowed in case a man sees them.


Inside, it was easy to forget that we were in an Islamic Republic. Women rushed about busily in smart suits or training kit - headscarves and overcoats cast aside.

The British and Iraqi teams were already warming up on the pitch.

In the press corner we were joined by only one other journalist - an extremely elegant Iranian lady with oval-shaped glasses, reporting for a women's magazine.

Without evincing an unseemly enthusiasm for the subject, she asked me for the low-down on the British team.

Iran flattened everyone in their path at this event and were left unsatisfied

I told her what I knew - that the British, unlike the competition's other teams, were not the national team.

They practised only once a week in a sports centre in Watford with a sign stuck over the door stating "Women Only".

But there was no question they were hungry for victory. A medal, they felt, would vindicate their efforts to provide opportunities in sport for Muslim women in Britain.

The journalist nodded vaguely before disappearing behind a book entitled Secrets of Life Every Woman Should Know.

Frayed tempers

Play kicked off after a prayer. It was clear from the first minute - when Iraq scored - that Britain were outclassed.

The impressive individual skills which I knew our girls possessed seemed to evaporate under pressure.

As the goal deficit mounted, the British captain succumbed to an ankle injury, tempers frayed and the centre forward was sent off.

Britain's Muslim team
The British women's team were beaten heavily by Iraq
In search of light relief, we migrated to the balcony, where we noticed the Iranian team had arrived in preparation for their match.

We struck up a conversation with one of the players - let's call her Shirin - who lost no time in informing us that she dreamed of playing for Liverpool.

The microphone was immediately snatched by her team-mate who screamed "Arsenal!", followed by another shouting "Chelsea!", and another "Manchester United!"

The Iranian squad were a real national team. Supported by the government, they trained intensively to the point of obsession.

Their coach is Brazilian - their skills, fitness and team play absolutely breathtaking. Other teams in the tournament struggled to give them a match at all.

"Why are the British team so weak?" asked Shirin, kindly but uncomprehending. "Arsenal, Manchester United - don't they have women's teams?"

One thing is for sure: It's difficult to imagine the cream of non-Muslim sport competing here

I tried to explain that the girls representing Britain were there because they were Muslim - that this tournament was special to them, as it was the only one where conditions allowed them to remove their hijab in order to play.

Shirin shrugged. She doesn't wear hijab by choice like the British girls do. "I'm ready to play anyone from any religion," she said. "I'd like to have good competition."

This difference in attitude is a subject which the organisers of the Islamic Countries' Women's Games have to face.

Real competition

Iran flattened everyone in their path at this event and were left unsatisfied.

They clearly need to compete at a higher level but are prevented by the national policy and perhaps in some cases personal beliefs, requiring Islamic conditions.

Britain struggled right from the beginning but at least had the opportunity to taste the experience of real competition - something they had not managed to arrange at home.

The organisers would love the competition to become an Islamic alternative to the Olympic Games - national teams from all over the world gathering to compete under these special conditions.

But if non-Muslim teams start taking part, how will the football-mad Muslim girls from countries where they are in a minority - like Britain - ever develop their sporting talents? And what about those Iranian sportswomen who simply don't care about the hijab?

One thing is for sure: It's difficult to imagine the cream of non-Muslim sport competing here.

No male supporters, trainers or physios and, above all, no photography to please the sponsors and generate public interest.

Life is certainly not made easy for reporters, who stayed away in droves from this event.

We returned to the lonely press corner just in time to say goodbye to our Iranian colleague.

She was delicately arranging her airy, ice-pink headscarf, and getting her papers together to file her report.

With no photos, of course.

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