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Iran: Women Defy Ban, Attend Soccer Match

Female fans cheer on Iran's national soccer team on 8 June Iran qualified for the World Cup yesterday by beating Bahrain 1-0 in a match in Tehran. The win led to mass street celebrations across the country. The game also represented a victory for Iranian women, after a group of them pushed their way into the stadium to watch the event. Women in Iran have been barred from attending soccer matches since the establishment of the Islamic republic some 26 years ago.

Prague, 9 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was a first in the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Some 100 Iranian women watched a soccer match inside Tehran's Azadi (Freedom) stadium, surrounded by some 80,000 men.

In Iran, it is considered un-Islamic and incorrect for women to attend men's sporting events. Only in rare cases are foreign women, VIPs, female referees, or female football players allowed into sports stadiums in Iran.

Journalist Parastou Dokuhaki was one of those women who watched yesterday's match. She said she wanted to watch the game "to see how it feels." She told the "Rooz" newspaper that the women blocked the way into the stadium and kept chanting and singing until they were allowed in. The women chanted, "Freedom is my right, Iran is my country" and "How many steps toward freedom?"

Mahboubeh Abbas-Gholizadeh, a women's rights activist, was also among those who went to Azadi stadium. But she was not able to watch the game. Her leg was broken when guards tried to push her and the other women out by closing a gate.
"Who cares about the elections? We're going to the World Cup!"

But Abbas-Gholizadeh told RFE/RL that it was worth it.

"When it comes to women's rights, I think it was worth it. A leg gets broken, but maybe [it will lead] to the change in the law," Abbas-Gholizadeh said. "Or an issue regarding women's rights might be brought to attention. Violence is bad. It's bad to have to pay a price. But I don't think it has been any different elsewhere in the world, where people have also had to obtain their rights themselves."

She said their presence in the stadium marked a symbolic victory in the fight against restrictions imposed on women in Iran.

"Our argument is not only limited to entering stadiums, even though our young girls have for years been hope-sick to use it," Abbas-Gholizadeh said. "But we have [also] more general demands, like using public city spaces for men and women equally. The segregation that is occurring is a violation of citizen's rights. The ideal behind this is that activists in the women's movement in Iran are trying to put into practice women's rights in different places symbolically, and the issue of stadiums is one of them."

She said she hopes the move will persuade Iranian officials to lift the ban on women attending male sporting events.

Reza, a young soccer fan in Tehran, said he believes women should be allowed into stadiums. He said the presence of women would help calm the atmosphere.

"It's their right, like others. I think it's really good," Reza said. "Recently, the atmosphere has not been very good in the stadium. People are cursing and so on. And I think if women were there, the spectators would refrain from [using foul language]."

Reza said that after yesterday's game, during which Iran qualified for the World Cup in Germany, boys and girls cheered and danced together on several streets in Tehran.

More significantly, some girls even removed their head scarves. Women in Iran are strictly required to wear the Islamic hijab and to cover their hair and body.

Police did not interfere in yesterday's postgame celebrations.

Some observers said officials appear ready to soften their approach to social issues ahead of Iran's presidential election. Iranian leaders are eager for a large voter turnout on 17 June to prove the establishment's legitimacy.

Iran's eight presidential candidates are trying to secure the female vote by expressing support for women's rights. Some women had already been invited to attend yesterday's game as guests of Mohsen Mehralizadeh, the head of Iran's Sports Organization and a candidate for president.

Despite some campaigning by supporters of presidential candidates, yesterday's street celebrations remained largely free of politics. "Who cares about the elections?" a young woman was quoted by Reuters as saying. "We're going to the World Cup!"