Freedom in "Exclusive" Facilities

When women are among themselves, they can move freely without the hindrance of long gowns and headscarves. In private, they appear with make-up and colored hair, and wear shorts and swim suits. Sports centers, swimming pools, and fitness gyms are available to them. It must be borne in mind, however, that the sports facilities only benefit a small portion of the female population. "Most sports centers are reserved for men. We don't have a tenth of the facilities they have," complained an Iranian sportswoman in an interview.

The gender segregation enables girls and women to take up a sport. However, many sports are considered to be "unfeminine," even if they are practiced out of sight of men. An extremely controversial issue was allowing women to play soccer, the national sport. It took a lot of hard work on the part of women activists to convince religious leaders that playing soccer did no harm. In 1998, the first training session took place in Tehran. "Schoolgirls, students, and older women were there that day simply because they loved soccer," reported a female coach in an interview.

Iranian Women Take Up Sports

The chief motives for women in taking up sports are to keep physically fit and, above all, to have a slim figure. Jane Fonda's book on aerobics, for example, is available in Farsi, with the photos replaced by drawings. The ideal of a slim figure is widespread in Iran, as it is everywhere. During the 1999 conference on women's sports in Tehran, many speakers emphasized the significance of sports to acquiring a good figure. They argued that a good figure is a sign of health and being fit; it does not matter that the body is hidden under the long coats. It must be added, though, that commercial fitness gyms and aerobics studios are only accessible to a relatively small number of well-off Iranian women.

Since the early 1990s, Iranian women have been taking part in sporting competitions. Among the very first competitions held were shooting competitions, obviously because women could wear the head-to-toe clothing to do the sport.

In addition, leagues have also been set up in various ball games, such as volleyball, handball, basketball, table tennis, and even women's soccer (1998). Activists advocated in both local and international meetings that women's participation in sports could be a way of demonstrating to the world the superiority of Islam.

Participating in the Olympic Games

Because of gathering voices from the ranks of women, Iranian women have been allowed to compete in international sports meetings, and since the early 1990s, in the Olympic Games. However, because of Islamic restrictions, their participation has been limited to shooting events. To allow women to compete in other competitive sports, which had to involve wearing clothes that bared parts of the body, an alternative had to be found, and the Muslim Women's Games was organized. Now, the women could play, and men would be barred from organizing and watching; they could neither be officials nor spectators!

These games were initiated by Fa'ezeh Hashemi, daughter of the former President Rafsanjani, and took place for the first time in Tehran in 1993. At the Women's Games, the athletes marched into the stadium wearing the hijab for the official opening ceremony, watched also by male spectators. Afterward, the women competed in the various events, wearing the usual sports attire but not exposed to the view of men. The presence of female judges, journalists, medical doctors, and coaches proved that such events could be successfully held without  men in the stadiums, gyms, or at the swimming pools.