For more on Iran, see the related postings at "Left Wing," our auxiliary "blog."

Coverings | Donning the hijab for a full 90

Iranian women in hijab sing at opening ceremonies of the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship on 23 September. (Reuters)

Tehran, Iran, and Amman, Jordan | Several women's football competitions have concluded recently in the Arab world. The events again call on cross-cultural sensitivities to assimilate the reality of women competing in gender-segregated environments and in Islam-mandated dress. The fourth international Islamic Women's Games—incorporating 1,700 athletes from 40 countries, including, for the first time, an American (Scott Peterson, "In Iran, US Runner Joins the Races," Christian Science Monitor, 29 September)—concluded on 29 September in Iran. The women played futsal, as this has been the preferred form of the game since Iranian clerics authorized soccer for women in 1998. The first national women's football championship concluded in Pakistan at about the same time last week, drawing more notice in the world press than would have been customary for what the Pakistan Daily Times stereotypically branded a "catfight" at game's end ("Punjab Win Inaugural Women's Football Championship," 30 September). The BBC gleefully called the final—won by Punjab, 1–0, over a water-development-authority team at Jinnah Stadium in Lahore—a "soccer punch-up" given the 13 minutes required to calm disputes after a penalty kick.

Iran's Shihrin Nasri, left, competes during the final. (Muhammad Al-Kisswany | AP)

Iran lost 2–1 to host Jordan in the final of the West Asian Football Federation Women's Championship on 1 October. The Iranian women, as pictured at left, played in hijab and long pants, while Jordan played in shorts. This variance in itself illustrates the multiple interpretations of Islamic practice. Gertrud Pfister, in an essay on women and sport in Iran, makes clear that there are no prohibitions on girls' and women's sports ("Women and Sport in Iran: Keeping Goal in the Hijab?" in Sport and Women: Social Issues in International Perspective, ed. Ilse Hartmann-Tews and Gertrud Pfister [Routledge, 2003], 211). Sayings attributed to Mohammed recommend an active life, with running, horseback riding, swimming and archery mentioned specifically. Islamic concern for "one's body, cleanliness, purification and force" ultimately collides, however, with values confining women to home and family spheres. (The need for modesty extends to men also, with the Iranian football federation last year banning ponytails and "sculpted beards"; male athletes are to cover their bodies between the navel and the knees.) The general feeling appears to be one of progress for women in Islamic communities, with interest in sport on the rise and opportunities for participation expanding. The Times of London, for example, reported before the Islamic Women's Games on the entry of a football side from Great Britain. Girls participate in activities such as the West Ham Asians in Football Project. "[I]f you travel down to the playing fields of East London, it is likely that you will see hijab-wearing girls playing football with their friends and brothers, something that would have been unthinkable 20 year ago" (Matthew Syed, "Muslim Women Leading Gentle Revolution with a Football," 21 September).

Maud Watson, who in 1884 became the first women's champion at Wimbledon, models the tennis fashion of the day.

Although Indian tennis player Sania Mirza now and, before her, the Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka drew wrath for competing with legs uncovered, organizers of the Islamic Women's Games say the intent is to encourage women rather than to stifle them further. "We are seeking to empower and encourage Muslim women, who are absent from the international sports grounds due to their beliefs," says Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Hashemi started the pan-Islamic women's competition in 1993. Women from Iran have been able to compete in past Asian Games and Olympics in shooting and kayaking, in which covering the body does not present a barrier to competition. Lest Westerners tut-tut at these traditional ways, Syed in his Times article rightly points out that misogyny features in both the Quran and the Bible; Muslims, in general, remain more faithful to the literal word, although Roman Catholics, Mormons and the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States deny priestly ordination to women. And, on the matter of sporting apparel, Sarah Murray in an intelligent essay for the Women's Sports Foundation points out that female tennis players and cyclists in the West earlier had been confined in petticoats and corsets ("Unveiling Myths: Muslim Women and Sport," 16 January 2002). Islamic women athletes also share with their Judeo-Christian (and non-religious) counterparts a lack of representation in radio, television, print and online media. "Ambitious women's sports coverage remains a virtual oxymoron in the United States[,] where women have been competing for well over a century," Murray writes. "If we struggle for equitable media coverage of women's sports, imagine how the scenario is exacerbated in places where women's sports are in earlier stages of development."

Refugees from Somalia with Nike designers in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. (Copyright © 2005 H. Faber | Nike)

Update: An article in Women's E-News brings out the cultural importance of the Women's Islamic Games (Khadeeja Balkhi, "Islamic Games Highlight Camaraderie of Women," 30 September 2005). Some 10,000 attended the 18 events; the opening ceremony caused "huge traffic jams" and made news as male and female dancers performed together.

Nike has been active, at least since 2005, in working with Islamic women in Africa to redesign sporting apparel. In partnership with the United Nations refugee agency, designers have sought to improve women athletes' mobility and comfort while maintaining modesty. The test case was a group of Somali refugees in Kenya who played volleyball as a way to relieve stress. The New York Times reported:

Girls' sports are still a novelty in Somali culture, so much so that the volleyball players here have been denounced by sheiks for supposed unladylike acts, like running or extending their arms in the air, and gawked at by boys unfamiliar with seeing women doing much more than cooking or cleaning or carting water on their heads.

"Some people think that if girls play sports they are prostitutes," [Farhiyo Farah] Ibrahim said. "Our parents were embarrassed. They had bad feelings about girls playing outside." (Marc Lacey, "Where Showing Skin Doesn't Sell, a New Style Is a Hit," 20 March 2006)

Link to
One of the outdoor designs available at

Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen has created "capsters" within the volatile context in Holland, in which a majority of citizens view Muslims unfavorably (Leela Jacinto,'Hip' Hijab Takes On Dutch Prejudices," Christian Science Monitor, 17 April 2006). Van Bremen's work does not just extend to garments but to intercultural dialogue. She and photographer Giti Entezami have produced a book and exhibition, Delen van motieven (Sharing motives), that shows Dutch women in a variety of hijabs. Testifies Farah Azwai, an athlete at American Intercontinental University in London:

Before I had the capsters, I tried a number of things—I used to wear a bandanna and tried fixing my hijab in different ways but it wasn't very practical and I always had problems. The fabric and style is very modern, it totally suits my style—it goes well with my sports clothes, with brands like Nike, Adidas and Pineapple.

Supporters | Demanding their right of entry

Women protesters after gaining entry into Azadi Sport Complex on Wednesday. (A Daily Briefing on Iran)

Tehran, Iran | Officially the Iranian government permitted one small group of female supporters to attend the World Cup qualifier with North Korea on 3 June—this was as long as they remained segregated and followed Islamic guidelines on dress (Robert Tait, "Iranian Women Kick Out against Football Ban," The Guardian, 6 June). But the bigger story was some 200 women forcing their way into the venue on 8 June after spending hours chanting, "My right is also a human right" (Nazila Fathi, "Iranians Cheer 1–0 Win and Trip to World Cup," New York Times). The leg of women's activist Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh was broken as guards tried to close a gate (Golnaz Esfandiari, "Women Defy Ban, Attend Soccer Match," Radio Free Europe). "Many young women are in love with football but they are frustrated that they cannot come to watch," says Niloofar Ardalan, among the some 20 women—all participants in a women's indoor football league—allowed to spectate at the North Korea qualifier. The issue appears to carry political traction, as pundits say. Activism on the issue has persuaded the front-runner in the 17 June presidential election, Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, to support ending the ban on women's attendance. But the women seem to be outpacing the politicians. With Iran qualifying for the 2006 World Cup finals in its 1–0 victory Wednesday over Bahrain, girls and women joined the fervent street celebrations (see a collection of photos by Arash Ashoorinia and coverage in The Scotsman). Expatriate Iranian author Azar Nafisi recalls the atmosphere following qualification for France 1998: "[M]illions of Iranians spilled into the streets, dancing and singing to loud music. They called it the 'football revolution.' The most striking feature of this 'revolution' was the presence of thousands of women who broke through police barricades to enter the football stadium, from which they are normally banned. Some even celebrated by taking off their veils" ("The Veiled Threat," The New Republic, 22 February 1999, 29).

Update: Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei on 8 May 2006 reversed a decision two weeks earlier by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, saying that "the presence of women and families in public places promotes chastity," had temporarily lifted the ban on women's attendance at football, The ban has been in place since the Islamic revolution of 1979. Female players interviewed by National Public Radio ("Iran Bans Women from Attending Men's Soccer Games," 17 May 2006) feared that the policy switch would make it harder for women to gain right of entry in the future. Women's advocate Abbass-Gholizadeh had claimed the original decision as a victory for the women's movement in Iran, but nevertheless pushed for women's access to all public places. "Some places in Iran are generally designated 'For Men Only,' " she told Radio Free Europe.

That some of the protests in 2005 were staged as part of filming for Jafar Panahi's Offside is hinted in a report of a screening at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival. The film is classified as a pseudo-documentary, using non-professional actresses that Panahi disguised as men to stand outside the stadium. "The women refuse to accept the fact that they are not permitted to see the game. They revolt, they bicker, they clown about and deny they have infringed a law. . . . One of the women swears like a fishwife, using just those words from which the women are supposed to be protected." See 17 February 2006 for more.

Mêlées | We know what we blog

A sea of Iranian flags in Azadi (Freedom) Stadium. (Iranian Students News Agency)

Tehran, Iran | More than 80 football-playing nations with designs on the 2006 World Cup tournament finals have competed over this most recent six-day FIFA international "window." And just as many epistemologies were also at work. How do we know what we know? We are still trying to discover how Michael Ledeen, an editor for National Review Online, makes such decisions. He criticizes the International Herald Tribune and its soccer writer, Rob Hughes, and tars the rest of the MSM ("mainstream media") ilk ("Sometimes Soccer Isn't Just Soccer"). Their crime? "[T]reating the latest anti-regime demonstrations in Iran as a sporting event," referring to Iran's 2–0 home victory over Japan on 25 March. After the game, five died and more than 40 were hurt in a crush exiting the stadium (see Hughes, "Celebration Turns Deadly in Iran," 28 March).

Ledeen continues:

If he had been interested, Hughes could have seen pictures of Iranian security forces closing in on the "fans," both inside the stadium and out on the streets, where women—who are barred from attending athletic events in the Islamic republic—were singled out for special brutality.

This statement is unsourced. According to Ledeen, Iranian bloggers had been describing anti-regime protests across the country. No links are provided. The comic aspect, of course, is that neither Ledeen nor Hughes was at the game. Neither were we. So how do we know what we know? Hughes, in fact, did mention reports that the deaths at Azadi Stadium might have coincided with civil unrest. And how to interpret further fan troubles at Iran's fixture with North Korea five days later, at which supporters in Pyongyang apparently resorted to violence on disputing a refereeing decision? In the online Persian Mirror, Kaveh Mahjoob, presumably watching via satellite, writes of a venue "covered with people dressed in the same dark-grey . . . uniform, look[ing] like a black-and-white . . . photo from the 50's." A tagline to the article says that Mahjoob lives in Laguna Hills, California. But he's entitled to his opinion.

Women | Football first, then Everest

Training for the assault. (Leila Bahrami, Christian Science Monitor)

Tehran, Iran | With a team of female climbers preparing to scale Mount Everest, the Christian Science Monitor focuses on women's sports in Iran (Michael Theodoulou, "Iranian Women, Scaling New Heights, Eye Everest"). Tehran this week hosts the All-Women Games for Muslim and Asian Capitals, conceived by Faezeh Hashemi, vice-president of Iran's Olympic committee and daughter of former president Ali Akbar Hashemi. Six hundred women from 17 countries will participate; only marksmanship will permit male spectators. It is not clear if the Games will include football, although Hashemi's efforts earlier had led to a women's soccer federation in Iran and occasional games. (Update: On 30 May, Farkhondeh Sadegh, a graphic designer, and Laleh Keshavarz, a dentist, became the first Muslim women to make a successful ascent of Mount Everest. See the website Iran Mountain Zone for more.)


Tehran, Iran, 8 Feb 04 | Through a photo essay in the New York Times Magazine we Niloofar Bassirmeet Niloofar Bassir (Nazila Fathi, "Beckham's Kid Sister," photography by Newsha Tavakolian, available through 14 February in the "Lives" section of the magazine's home page), a 19-year-old who quickly puts one in mind of Jesminder Bhamra of Bend It Like Beckham. As with Bhamra's retreat in the home of her Punjabi Sikh parents, one can see Beckham in various triumphant poses on the wall of Bassir's room. Bassir can braid her hair like Beckham, but must keep it covered in public. Only female fans can watch her compete in uniform.

Milan, 4 Nov 03 | European Union commissioners are set to examine the so-called football savior law, "Silvio, silver and gold won't bring back the beat of a heart grown cold" (B. Dylan)passed to help Silvio Berlusconi's AC Milan and other Italian clubs struggling with burdensome debt. The EU could decide to veto the law, according to today's Financial Times (Fred Kapner, "Italy's 'Saviour' Laws Face Probes," p. 16). The result would be "the bankruptcy of Italian football," says Lecce president Rico Semeraro. Berlusconi, incidentally, is profiled by Jane Kramer in the current New Yorker ("All He Surveys," 10 November 2003, 95–105). . . . Speaking of the current New Yorker, memoirist Tara Bahrampour uses football to set the scene for her sketch of expatriate Iranians in Los Angeles—or, "Irangeles" ("Persia on the Pacific," 10 November 2003, 52–60). Parshaw Dorriz, now a high school senior, found himself inspired by Iran's 2-1 victory over the United States in the 1998 World Cup finals:

It was the first time I'd seen Iranians all rooting for the same thing instead of arguing about "the Shah did this," "the mullahs did that." I saw a sense of unity, and I felt like this was something important.

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