Monday, April 24, 2006

Iran President Says Let Women Into Sports Stadiums

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday women should be allowed into sports stadiums for the first time, reversing the Islamic Republic's code preventing them watching men playing sports in big venues. He was quoted by state television as saying the presence of women and families would "promote chastity".

Women have been barred from attending matches, such as national soccer games, in big stadiums and have long complained, particularly when female fans of visiting foreign teams were allowed in. READ MORE

A state television announcer reported that Ahmadinejad "ordered the head of the sports organisation to provide facilities in the stadiums to watch national matches."

The president was quoted as saying: "The best stands should be allocated to women and families in the stadiums in which national and important matches are being held."

"The presence of women and families in public places promotes chastity," he was quoted as saying.

It follows Ahmadinejad's statement on Sunday saying Iran's strict Islamic dress codes that require women to cover their heads and bodies should not be imposed by force. Police say they would take a softer approach to this summer's campaign on dress.

Some analysts have said the softer line might be because the government does not want to alienate any part of the population when it is under mounting international pressure over its nuclear programme.

In the past, women had occasionally scuffled with police when they were barred from entering stadiums. Some tried to go inside dressed as men or sneaked in with the foreign fans.

Women have sometimes been allowed into smaller sports venues to watch male sports, such as basketball or volleyball.

Enforcement of strict moral codes governing women's dress, Western music and mingling of the sexes became more lax after President Mohammad Khatami's election in 1997 on a platform of reforms. But even under him, women were barred from stadiums.

Since Ahmadinejad won the presidency last year with the backing of conservative clerics and Basij religious militias, hardliners have pressed for tighter controls on "immoral behaviour". Many expected tougher rules would follow.

Ahmadinejad was elected after promising a return to the values of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Initially after the revolution, women were prevented from entering sports stadiums because men were wearing shorts, but more recently officials have said the bar was because it was inappropriate for women to be in crowds where strong language or bad behaviour was expected.
Is the regime caving into pressure? This will likely fuel more protest for other freedoms.