WORLD CUP: Players drill, female fans behind grill

Tehran, May 23 :

Like others who come to watch Iran’s national soccer team prepare for the World Cup in July, they join in the chants and wave their flags. But these fans are cheering from outside the fence surrounding the field, barred by law from entering because they are women.

On Monday, more than 50 female fans — from girls to mothers with baby strollers — pressed against the wobbling chain-link fence, screaming, whistling, and trying to make sense of their exile. “We’re out here like beggars in our own country trying to support our own nation’s team,” said 20-year-old Mina Tehrani, who was taking photos of the team with her cell phone. “Are we not Iranians? Are our cheers less important?”

It’s just the latest in the ever-shifting — and seemingly arbitrary — messages sent to women by Iran’s Islamic establishment.

Women work side by side men in nearly every setting, from state offices to passport control booths to parliament. In recent years, women have made headlines by taking places in police and fire departments. A few women cabbies cruise the streets of Tehran.

But it appears a firm line is drawn around the soccer field. In April, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprised his conservative backers by deciding that women could attend soccer games, but restricted them to a separate section of the stadium. Ahmadinejad said women’s presence would “improve soccer-watching manners and promote a healthy atmosphere.” But Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, didn’t agree. He has the final say on all matters in Iran.

So Hamid Ghomnam leans against the fence with his two daughters, 10 and 12, and watches the team run through its drills. A security officer tried to hustle away the women claiming even the parking lot side of the fence is off limits. But the crowd stood firm.

Fingers clenched around the rusting fence, which bulged and swayed under their weight. “I am ashamed to have my daughters out here in the parking lot looking in,” said Ghomnam, 49. “But it makes me proud to show them women standing up against this stupid rule.”

A short way down the fence, Sima Babri called a friend to give a full description of the training. A Winnie the Pooh bauble dangled from her cell phone. She wore the springtime uniform of trendy, 20-something women across Tehran: denim jeans rolled high up on a calf, a form-fitting cotton tunic and a colourful headscarf that covered less hair than was blowing free.

“I’m here because I love the team,” said Babri, 21. “But I’m also making a personal stand. We cannot just always back down.”

Women have been allowed into Tehran’s stadium to watch soccer before. Five years ago, a group of Irish women was permitted to attend a World Cup qualifier between Iran and Ireland.

In March, a group of about 40 Iranian women tried to enter the stadium for a WC warm-up match with Costa Rica. Authorities at first blocked them and then promised to allow them into to a reserved section. Instead, however, the women were put on a bus and driven around the city until the match ended.

During Monday’s training session, two women managed to beat the system. Sabo Tehrani and her daughter arrived hours before security and found a spot inside the stadium compound. Outside the fence, the women chanted: “We will be inside someday.” A few men in the stands answered: “Sisters, don’t give up!”