Thursday, April 27, 2006

Tehran Goes Nuclear Over Women Attending Football

Gareth Smyth, The Financial Times:
Iran may be in a stand-off with the west over its nuclear ambitions but one of the biggest issues gripping Tehran is whether women should be allowed to attend football matches. Some of Iran’s most senior clerics issued rulings this week condemning a decision by President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad allowing women to sit in the stands at top matches.

A ban has been in place since the 1979 Islamic revolution but it has come under pressure as football fever has grown after Iran qualified for this summer’s World Cup in Germany. Women are also prevented from watching wrestling but have been allowed into basketball matches, which attract small crowds. READ MORE

In the 1998 World Cup Iran beat the US, a feat that still inspires national pride. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad has trained with the national team and was an accomplished striker at school.

His populist move has confused both fundamentalists and reformists who had regarded him as socially conservative. He was elected last June on a promise to restore the values of the Islamic revolution and redistribute oil wealth.

On Monday the president told sporting authorities to build special areas in stadiums where women and families could sit safely. Some supporters of the decision said the presence of women at games could calm boisterous all-male crowds.

But the reform has met strong opposition from parts of the religious establishment. Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani ruled that it was forbidden for women to see “men’s bodies even if not to gain pleasure” and suggested separate stadiums for women to watch women’s football.

On Wednesday Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi told students in the holy city of Qom that he was awaiting a response after writing to the president expressing surprise at a decision taken without consulting the religious authorities.

When everybody is at home and can comfortably watch games on television, why should it be necessary for women and families to be in the unsafe atmosphere of stadiums?” he was reported to have said by an official news agency. More than half of the parliament’s members were reported to be writing to the president to persuade him to change his mind.

Syasat-e Rooz, a newspaper close to Mr Ahmadi-Nejad, defended the relaxation of the ban, arguing that it “shows the president does not believe in restrictions but [rather] that the goal of government is to create safety”.

Iran’s reformists have long argued that the 1979 revolution sought to encourage women’s participation in public life.