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Iran allows some women to attend soccer games after 26-year ban

TEHRAN, Iran—Parisa Ghahramani writes about Iranian soccer. But until a week ago, the 21-year-old journalist hadn't attended a single game.

Like other Iranian women, she's barred from attending such events in the Islamic Republic. The sexes are strictly segregated in many public places, including buses and mosques, and stadiums that draw rowdy male spectators were declared off-limits to women after the Islamic revolution 26 years ago.

Television was the only way for them to watch Iran's favorite pastime until last Friday, when Ghahramani and 20 other female journalists and athletes unexpectedly were granted permission to watch their national soccer team play in the country's main venue, the 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium.

The women were invited back to a game Wednesday night, and Iranian officials also granted another 50 women permission to attend. Dozens more women, including journalist Ladan Karami, gathered at the stadium's gates Wednesday evening, hoping to persuade the guards to let them in, too.

Karami and 25 other women, including journalist Mahnaz Jafari, 23, were allowed into the stadium. Jafari said it was because a security guard who was trying to keep them out broke another woman's foot when he slammed the gate shut. Other guards prevented the women from entering the stands, but Jafari said it didn't matter, because just getting into the stadium was a victory.

Iranian officials are eager to appeal to female voters before the presidential election June 17. The ruling clerics are pushing publicly for a good showing in the election to improve the Islamic Republic's image at home and abroad. As a result, they're more likely to compromise, at least on social issues, analysts said.

"They are using us for the elections, but we hope to use the situation too," said Karami, 23. "We want our rights."

Only female journalists and athletes have been granted waivers thus far. But they and many other women think that with domestic discontent over a struggling economy and stagnant political scene, the time has never been better to fight restrictions such as the stadium ban.

Iran's presidential candidates have latched on to the women's demands. The reported front-runner, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president and Parliament speaker, has called for lifting the ban in a bid for the votes of Iranians 30 and younger, who make up some 70 percent of the population.

A more liberal candidate who's lagging in the polls, Vice President Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who heads the official National Sports Organization of Iran, invited to Wednesday's game some 50 women who'd sent a letter to the Tehran governor's office two days earlier demanding that they be allowed to attend.

Even campaign workers for a more conservative candidate, Ali Ardashir Larijani, a former head of the state-run television and radio network, handed out scarves with his campaign logo and the Iranian flag to women who tried to get tickets. Iran's team ended up qualifying for next year's World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Bahrain on Wednesday night.

Men and women were segregated at Friday's and Wednesday's games.

Female stadium employees who were leaving for the day cheered Wednesday when they saw Karami and her friends waiting to get in. One of the employees, who gave her name only as Masoumeh, joked that the young women should tackle the guards and "tweak their beards."

"I used to come and watch soccer here when the shah was still in power," Masoumeh said. "Back then, men and women sat together."

Jafari, who wasn't born then, was excited when she was reached by phone after the game.

"We weren't even looking at the game, the stadium was so new to us," she said. "We just stared at all of the people."

Male spectators were surprised to see women at the game.

A few men, including garbage collector Majid Goudarzi, 24, said they opposed women being in the stadium only because they didn't want them offended by rowdy and cursing male fans.

Many said they supported the decision.

"If I'd known I would have brought my 12-year-old sister," Vahid Ghelijzadeh said as he painted a red, white and green Iranian flag on his male cousin's face. "We had to sneak out of the house because she was crying and so upset that she couldn't come."

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(Special correspondent Saeed Kousha in Tehran contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-WOMEN

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