Iranian Women Kick Out Against Football Ban
Robert Tait, The Guardian:
With the red, white and green tricolour of the Iranian flag draped around her shoulders, Niloofar Ardalan appeared to be in her element as she cheered on the national football team as it battled to reach next year's World Cup.
As the daughter of a former international goalkeeper, football is in her blood. She is widely lauded as the best female player in Iran, and once scored 23 goals in an international Islamic women's indoor five-a-side tournament.
But despite her achievements, last Friday's tie between Iran and North Korea was the first men's match Ms Ardalan, 20, had been allowed to attend. READ MORE
Along with around 20 other young women, Ms Ardalan - an ardent Chelsea fan - was breaching a deeply entrenched taboo of Islamic Iran that bars females from spectating at male sporting events.
"I think the atmosphere is very good," said Ms Ardalan, as Iran laboured to a 1-0 victory that left the team on the brink of qualifying for the finals in Germany. "Women should be allowed to be present at matches to calm down the atmosphere. If the men saw that their sisters were sitting nearby they would behave better and not shout and curse."
Women's attendance at football matches has emerged as an issue in this month's presidential election. The frontrunner, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a pillar of the political establishment now trying to reinvent himself as the young people's champion, has said he favours lifting the ban on women.
Ms Ardalan, a physical education student, said Mr Rafsanjani's pledge could be a vote winner. "Many young women in Iran are in love with football but they are frustrated that they cannot come to watch."
Ms Ardalan and a group of fellow players from Iran's women's indoor league had been allowed to attend the match at Tehran's Azadi stadium after petitioning the Iranian Football Federation. A small group of women attended Iran's World Cup tie at home to Japan earlier this year, but fierce lobbying led to a larger number being permitted this time.
The only women in an otherwise all-male crowd, their presence was noticeably incongruous. Clad in black Islamic head covering and long coats, they were wedged between two groups of Koreans in a seating arrangement apparently calculated to limit their contact with Iranian male fans. Their attendance prompted a heavy presence of security officers, used to enforcing the all-male rule without challenge.
"This is just the beginning of our people having a new culture and getting used to women coming into stadiums," said Elaheh Moladoast, 27, a referee in the women's league. "We are defending our rights as women to come and watch rather than sitting at home and watching on television. There should be no limitations."
The women were making their stand on the 16th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. This lent the occasion a more sternly Islamic flavour than usual, with giant posters of the late supreme leader on display inside and outside the stadium.
Before kick-off, the giant scoreboard displayed images of Khomeini exhorting members of Iran's revolutionary guards. In contrast to the raucous pre-match entertainments western fans are accustomed to, five men in unison treated the crowd to tavashih - a recitation in Arabic of verses from the Qur'an.
Khomeini is widely believed to have been a football fan and reportedly overruled hardline clerics who wanted the sport banned as un-Islamic. His son Ahmad played in a team in the holy city of Qom.
But his strong views on rigid segregation of the sexes led to the ban on women attending matches and to rules restricting women's football to an indoor activity. Campaigners are now challenging that rule by seeking permission for a women's 11-a-side outdoor league.
They are basing their hopes on the willingness of the authorities to bend the rules to accommodate Iran's football obsession. That flexibility was demonstrated in 1998, when a leading player, Mehdi Mahdavikia was exempted from the military draft as a reward for scoring the winning goal in a World Cup match against the US.
Outside Azadi stadium, Farham Ghods, 24, summed up the sport's importance to the millions of young Iranians being courted by the country's presidential candidates. "For the young people, qualifying for the World Cup is far more important than the presidential election," he said. "Young people cannot reach their goals through politics, but the World Cup gives us some excitement. Football is a means of escape."