Soccer and Islamist politics clash in Iran

TEHRAN – A group of young women shout as they press up against the metal of the tall fence that separates them from the field on which Iran’s national soccer team practices. Waving Iranian flags and shouting the names of the players they idolize, the women try to get the team’s attention from this great distance. They want to get closer and actually sit inside the soccer stadium but Islamic law strictly forbids it. And the ban clearly irritates these devout Iranian soccer fans. «They keep on saying, ‘Ladies first’ to us, but it’s not true in practice,» complains Mojde, who is 28. «We don’t have very high expectations but I’m sitting here photographing the players through this wire. Is that fair?» On the other side of the fence, where the players are warming up, some 400 men who are watching the soccer practice glance often at the women, who cheer so enthusiastically for the team that they drown out the male fans’ shouts. Some of the men say they are stunned that women are still not allowed inside stadiums, especially since just a few weeks ago Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to cancel the law banning women from stadiums. Ahmadinejad’s progressive stance on this law surprised many, especially since his political image has largely been set by his conservative Islamist views and his obstinacy on the nuclear power issue. He almost sounded like a feminist when he said: «Unfortunately, whenever there is talk of social corruption, fingers are pointed at women. Shouldn’t men be blamed for the problems too?» But the permission to attend matches came only after the end of the season and was almost instantly revoked when five grand ayatollahs issued a sharp rebuke. It led to Ahmadinejad revoking his decision. Still, the course of liberalization that Iran has set on is so unstoppable that the group of women gathered around the training field that day are convinced that they will be allowed to attend games as soon as next year’s soccer season. (1) A version of this article first appeared in the June 4 issue of K, Kathimerini’s color supplement. Iason Athanasiadis is a British-Greek journalist and photographer who lives in Tehran.

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