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Wednesday, 3 March, 1999, 20:41 GMT
Iranian women take to the field
In Tehran's Mellat park, women gather for aerobics at dawn
By Jennie Walmsley

Since the ayatollahs' revolution, now over twenty years ago, the Western media has frequently portrayed Iranian women's lives as oppressed and limited. But their social activity is wide and diverse, and changing. One area where this change is most dramatic, as well as most controversial, is the growing involvement of women in sport.

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Jennie Walmsley records in Tehran (and in the required hejab)
Delving into such a sensitive topic was never going to be easy - particularly as our team was made up of a male presenter and a female producer. In Iran, nobody argues that women shouldn't be involved in sport at all; the issue is how far men's and women's sporting activities should be mixed. There were several occasions when one of the other of us were simply unable to attend a sporting event because we were of the wrong sex. In theory at least, as long as women are 'decently' covered, they may compete anywhere.

Even canoeists must cover up
But the Islamic Republic's interpretation of decency means female competitors in sports where a full hejab is impractical must confine themselves to performing in segregated arenas where all the audience are women. If they want to compete in front of a mixed audience - like that at the Olympics - they are effectively restricted to sports which can be done in extremely modest dress, like shooting, equestrianism and archery.

Starting with a dawn encounter with a women's aerobics class, we heard how women are increasingly involved in different sporting areas, from skiing to bodybuilding. Despite the restrictive side-effects of Islamic law, Iranian women are indeed 'going for the burn'. But it is an area fraught with difficulties, as we found out from one of Iran's leading sport's journalists, one of the few women working in the field.

Mahin Gorji: reporter, sportswoman and fan
Mahin Gorji is a journalist on a controversial newspaper, Nershot, which like its predecessors Jameah and Tous was recently banned for being too outspoken. Like many other of the newspapers challenging the claims to liberalism of the new regime of President Khatami, it fell victim to the grand political struggle between hardliners and reformers which is being played out in all aspects of life and all over Iran. A sportswoman herself, Mahin's attempts to cover sport have caused her great difficulty; she has suffered derision, abuse and even threats from fundamentalists. Nevertheless, she and others like her see women's participation in sport at all levels as part of a greater drive for representation of women in civil society.

The achievements of the Iranian football team in the World Cup last year pitched the entire country into soccermania. Women as well as men became fanatical football fans, with some demanding the right to be allowed into stadiums to watch matches. But Iranian women have not confined their struggle to the terraces - they're taking to the pitch too. In the last twelve months women's football has finally been recognised as a legitimate sport. Women have formed five-a-side teams, and we were lucky enough to get into the third-ever female football match in Iran.

Unfortunately our presenter Tim Whewell, as a man, was not allowed to attend, but Mahin provided him with a full match report. We also talked to several of the team members about the difficulties they have encountered in taking up the sport, and prejudices in society which suggest that some sports are inappropriate for women to play.

Tim Whewell meets football hero Nasser Hejazi
Nasser Hejazi is one of the country's most famous sportsmen. He coaches the men's football team Istaqlal, and prior to the revolution played football for Manchester United. His son , Attila, now plays for Istaqlal. His daughter, Atoussa, following in the family footsteps is one of the first, and best, women to take up the sport.

But despite Nasser's coaching abilities he is unable to see his daughter play. When I spoke to the Hejazi family about Atoussa's progress, it was hard to avoid raising the question of why she is not allowed to attend matches where her brother is playing. In Iran, despite the fact that football is now a national passion, it is still one clearly segregated between the sexes.

Tim did manage to attend a men's game, with thirty thousand male spectators (his female colleagues were forbidden to enter the ground) to experience an area of Iranian life considered unsuitable for female ears. Bad language is consistently cited as the reason why women ought not be present at such occasions. But women fans are still pressing to be allowed to attend, arguing that the Islamicisation of sporting arenas is damaging spectatorship.

Sporting segregation of the sexes is seen by some as oppressive, and by others as liberating. A representative of the women's sporting federation we met argued that separation has allowed more women, particularly from traditional families, to participate in sport. She assured me that the revolution has brought about dramatic change in women's sporting activity. No longer is sport the domain of a small and privileged elite; now, it's open to all.

Today, sport for girls is officially encouraged
The women's sporting federation is actively promoting sport, including football, in all corners of Iran. Furthermore, she maintained that women's control of sport - from finances to refereeing - gives them greater autonomy than their sisters in other Islamic countries, and even the West. But on the international front, there are problems for Iranian sportswomen. The inability of international bodies to make allowances for the Islamic needs of Iranian sportswomen means that international competition is severely curtailed.

Mahin Gorji and Atoussa Hejazi are part of a new revolutionary sporting generation. Iran has a huge young population - more than half of its people are under 20 years old. Women form an increasingly important economic, political and social force. Facing up to the desires and demands of the young, and young women in particular, is one of the country's greatest tasks. Their roles and participation are at the heart of the debate about Iran's future.

In a country where definitions of public and private are being challenged, and where civil society is attempting to accommodate a young generation who were never part of the overthrow of the Shah's regime, sport is becoming an arena and focus for public debate. And women's sport is now the testing ground for all kinds of progress - and compromise - in society as a whole.

has to hear about a girls' football match secondhand ....
Football legend Nasser Hejazi:
"I hope some day I can watch my daughter play"
Listen in on the riotous sound
of an Istiqlal match in Tehran ...
Mahin Gorji, female sports journalist:
"once I was ignored - now the players' mothers feed me gossip"
See also:

07 Dec 98 | Middle East
07 Dec 98 | Middle East
17 Jan 99 | Join The Debate
14 Dec 98 | Sport
02 Nov 98 | Middle East
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