Iran Bans Women from Attending Men's Soccer Games

Iranian women soccer fans are devastated following a decision by Iran's Supreme Leader that women are not allowed to watch men's soccer games in person. This decision comes just a month after Iran's President said women are allowed to watch soccer matches at stadiums.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Iran's hard-line president surprised many of his country's soccer fans last month when he announced that women would be allowed to attend men's soccer matches - something that had previously been forbidden. Some observers think he was trying to gain the support of moderates in order to build national unity amid increasing international pressure over Iran's nuclear program. But then, Iran's supreme leader forced the president the reconsider his decision.

Roxana Saberi reports from Tehran.

ROXANA SABERI reporting:

The president's spokesman said Mahmoud Ahmadinejad decided to reverse his decision after the Supreme Leader called on him to consider the views of Iran's religious leaders. Some of the country's top clerics and lawmakers had criticized the president's announcement. They said that a woman looking at the body of a male stranger at games like this one earlier this year would violate Islamic law.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

SABERI: Women can watch soccer broadcast on Iranian T.V. and they can attend basketball and volleyball matches even though they, too, involve men dressed in shorts. So, a soccer fan, Arafa al-Iliasi(ph) was thrilled when the president announced that women would be allowed to attend men's soccer games. But, now she thinks it will be even harder than before for women to break the gender barrier.

Ms. ARAFA AL-ILIASI: (Through translator) It would have been better if the president didn't announce it in the first place. Now, if we want to go to the stadiums, they'll say you're destroying religious lives. We women would have found a way to go ourselves.

SABERI: Some critics of the president's decision also said a Muslim woman's dignity would be threatened at soccer games that can get out of control.

(Soundbite of car horns)

(Soundbite of banging noise)

SABERI: The spectators at men's soccer games can get pretty rowdy. They often throw food and insults around. But, the president had said the best stands should be given to women and families, and that their presence would promote chastity. Some sports journalists like Sayid al-Epoohu Saani(ph) agree. He reports for Iran's Sports World weekly magazine.

Mr. SAYID AL-EPOOHU SAANI (Reporter, Sports World, Iran): You know, women -when women are present, the men are more polite. In every aspect of our social life women are present, so why can't they be present in the stadiums at all?

SABERI: Still, not all women feel they've been missing out at the stadiums. Some, like 23-year-old Hasti Amani(ph) say they prefer to watch the games on T.V.

Ms. HASTI AMANI: If I was able to go the stadium, I wouldn't, because I don't like the atmosphere over there. It's so crowded, and I think it's even dangerous. Watching the football game at the television is really better, because we can see the slow-motion, and it's clearer than in the big stadium.

SABERI: And some men here argue women should not be allowed to attend men's soccer games because men cannot go to women's matches.

(Soundbite of whistle and cheers)

SABERI: At this recent women's soccer game, only women were allowed in, even though both the Iranian and German teams covered their hair and bodies with what Iran considers proper Islamic clothing. Faseema Revaba Dey(ph) is a player on Iran's women's national team. She said she didn't want to see tensions building over a sport that can bring people together.

Ms. FASEEMA REVABA DEY (Professional Soccer Player): (Foreign language spoken)

SABERI: She said, if they say we can go to men's soccer games, we'll go. If not, we'll watch them on T.V. She added, we just want to play soccer and enjoy the sport we love.

For NPR News, I'm Roxana Saberi in Tehran.

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