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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006, 21:34 GMT 22:34 UK
Iran's female fans yet to win equality
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Iran's women take on Germany
Women players say by competing in public they have broken a taboo

Since the Islamic Revolution Iranian women have not been able to attend football matches, but in the run-up to the World Cup President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad said families including women should be let in to special sections of the stadiums.

It triggered enormous controversy - many of the country's top clerics opposed the move and eventually the Supreme Leader put an end to the idea dashing the hopes of Iran's women football fans:

It's not something you often hear in Iran - women cheering their football team. But this is the sound as for the first time since the revolution, women here are allowed to play an open air football game.

The clergy in Iran said it was un-Islamic for a woman to look at a strange man's legs - even if she didn't take pleasure from it

Even the visiting German team has to observe strict Islamic dress codes covering all their hair, although there are no men present.

Massoumeh Rezazadeh is on the Iranian team and says: "This is a huge step forward for women. It's so difficult to organize such a match and we're playing against a really good and well known foreign team for the first time.

"Actually we've advanced one hundred steps forward with this."

The women players say by competing in public for the first time they've broken the taboo that women are so weak they cannot play for 90 minutes at a stretch.

But some of the audience seem to think the women players have some catching up to do, like Marjan Aghavan.

"They're not bad. But they're not professional like the men but it's better than nothing," she says.

'As football mad as men'

But a male football stadium is a noisier experience altogether.

Iranian women watch football match
Clergy in Iran said it was un-Islamic for a woman to look at a strange man's legs

One of the main reasons given for barring women is that the men swear and shout and are too rowdy. Women have to be protected.

That was until President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad shocked everyone by suggesting women should be allowed into the stadiums.

The president knew that when Iran won the World Cup qualifying match last summer against Bahrain thousands of women went out on the streets to celebrate - just as football mad as the men.

But his populist gesture quickly backfired. The clergy in Iran said it was un-Islamic for a woman to look at a strange man's legs - even if she didn't take pleasure from it.

The country's supreme leader had to step in to end the dispute - advising the president to back down.

Graffiti 'too dirty'

In the wake of the controversy a new Iranian film that highlighted the absurdity of the ban on women was itself banned.

Iranian woman watches football from behind a fence
In real life, Iran's female football fans have yet to win equal rights

"Offside" tells the story of a girl who dresses up as a boy to get inside the stadium but quickly gets arrested.

She is kept with other female impostors in detention in an area of the stadium - offside - where she can still hear the match but not see it.

The film's director Jafar Panahi says he was inspired to make the film by his own daughter.

"One day my daughter came to me and asked to go and see a football match at the stadium which was near our house.

"I said you can't but she insisted. We went there and I asked if my daughter could see the match but they wouldn't give permission. She said don't worry about me - I went in alone and after 10 minutes she found a way to get in and join me.

The film is at times very funny. One of the women prisoners has to go to the toilet but the soldier guarding her goes to absurd lengths preserve her modesty, insisting that she shouldn't read the graffiti on the walls because it's too dirty for women's eyes.

'Impossible to solve'

Jafar Panahi was hoping his film would push the limits in Iran and help women. He blames the president for intervening in the issue.

"President Ahmedinejad only made it worse. At first they only said women shouldn't go because of the rowdy behaviour of the men.

"But when Ahmedinejad made his announcement it forced the clerics to take a position and they said women couldn't look at the naked legs and arms of the male players.

"This opened a religious front against lifting the ban and now it's impossible to solve this problem. "

In the film everything ends well - as the women are taken to the police station the bus is mobbed by crowds celebrating Iran's football victory.

In the chaos the women prisoners escape. But in real life Iran's female football fans have yet to win equal rights.

See Iranian female football players competeing

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