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Tehran Debates Breaking Dress Code To Broadcast Women At Olympics

Female rugby players train in Tehran
For years, Iranian women have been active in regional and international sports competitions, but religious laws in Iran prevent women from being seen on television without an Islamic hijab. While Iranian women play sports dressed in the traditional hijab, their international competitors do not -- and therefore cannot be shown in Iranian broadcasts.

For this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing, however, Iranian authorities might allow state television to broadcast the women's events. Ali Asghar Purmohammadi, who is responsible for broadcasting sports programs for Iran's state-run television, has said he is pressing Iranian authorities to give special permission to show women competing in the Olympic Games next month.

There are just three women among the 53 Iranian athletes who will compete in the Beijing Olympics from August 8-24, with one woman each competing in rowing, archery, and tae kwon do.

Millions of Iranian viewers would no doubt like to cheer on their female athletes in Beijing. But few Iranians expect their religious leaders to allow state television to air footage of women who do not obey Iran's Islamic dress code, which requires women to cover their heads and hair, and to disguise the shape of their bodies. Iranian television and print media largely avoid broadcasting or publishing pictures of female athletes because of the dress code violations by their international opponents.

Fatemeh Sepanji, a Tehran-based sports commentator, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the Iranian media are forced to pretend that women athletes in Iran do not exist.

"They obey all the rules. They are allowed to take part in sports. So why shouldn't they be shown on television?" she asks. "Obviously they will be shown [on TV] all over the world [when they compete in the Olympics]. What is the point of showing them in one country and hiding them in another?"

Tae kwon do is one sport in which Iranian women compete and excel
The restrictive dress code has prevented Iranian women from participating in many sports, such as swimming, diving, and other water sports, along with gymnastics, running events, and cycling.

Many Iranian sportswomen say they find it difficult to move in heavy, loose clothes -- especially in hot weather. Besides, they have to pay close attention to make sure that their hair or the skin on their arms or legs does not unexpectedly show while they are competing. Such "mistakes" in the heat of competition can result in a heavy price being paid by the women athletes.

Ramoneh Lazar, a member of Iran's rowing team, was expelled from the national team after her ankles were seen inside her boat during a competition in Bangkok.

Additionally, representatives of Iran's intelligence services follow the women athletes everywhere -- including at international competitions -- to ensure they don't violate any Islamic rules.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government actually tried to promote greater female participation in sports during the early days of his term. However, after facing vocal opposition and fierce criticism from religious leaders, his government gave up on the initiative.

Indeed, the pressure from religious leaders on the issue is strong. Ayatollah Alam Alhoda is one of many influential clerics who virulently oppose women's involvement in any sports activity. During a sermon after recent Friday Prayers in the Mashhad city mosque, the ayatollah said it is "unlawful" for women to participate in sports.

Another Iranian mullah said that women should not ski because "during skiing they have to move their knees and it looks more like dancing than sport."

Faced with dress restrictions and vociferous opposition, Iranian women participate in those sports that are compatible with the dress code, such as archery, rowing, soccer, and other events where the hijab and loose clothing might be uncomfortable and disadvantageous, but still allow them to compete.

Tae kwon do and kickboxing are hugely popular among Iranian women, but some mullahs say they are bothered by the fact that at the end of a match the male referees must hold the female competitors' hands in order to raise the hand of the winner.

Male coaches of women's teams also have difficulties, and their role has often been the subject of debate. When a female team has a male coach, the team members have to obey the dress code even during training because of the presence of the male coach or trainer.

And to make their jobs even more difficult, male coaches are required to keep a clear physical distance between themselves and the female athletes they instruct.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Mahin Gorjideridani contributed to this report
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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.