For Muslim women only Islamic games: A 10-day event in Iran brings women from 24 nations together to compete -- in some cases without male spectators or coaches.

December 18, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TEHRAN, Iran -- There's a different kind of international sporting event going on here this week.

It's the all-women's Islamic games, and in some cases the spectators will be all women, too.

The opening ceremonies Saturday featured male roller-bladers bearing the Koran. Five Muslim women dressed in white, billowy prayer capes chanted verses from Islam's holy book. And later, dozens of similarly clad participants performed a choreographed play about the prophet Mohammed.

For 10 days ending Wednesday of next week, female athletes from Azerbaijan to Indonesia are competing in everything from table tennis and basketball to rifle shooting and swimming.

"These women are going to be role models for other Islamic countries," Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, said as the games began.

Before him stood Indonesian pingpong players and swimmers from Iran, Pakistani handball players and martial artists from Kazakhstan. There were sprinters from Gabon and badminton players from the Maldives. Although all the women marching in the parade of 24 Muslim nations wore proper Islamic head-coverings and dress for the ceremonies, many did so only because Iran requires it of all women.

Abida Ghani, a handball player from Pakistan, looked stylish in white tunic and pants and accompanying green blazer and head scarf, the color of her country's flag.

But the modest Islamic dress was foreign to her.

"I prefer without hejab," said the 29-year-old athlete, referring to the head scarf she wore. (The word actually means cover.) "But I love the games, and for the games I wear the hejab."

Aliya Iskakova, an 18-year-old from Kazakhstan, doesn't wear the scarf at home. "In my country, we are free," she says.

There are exceptions. Basketball and volleyball players don't wear a hejab when they compete because their games are closed to men -- including male coaches.

In the past decade, Iran has made a concerted effort to involve women in sports. Before the 1979 revolution and creation of the present Islamic republic, most sporting events were organized through private clubs. But under Islamic rules, unrelated men and women could no longer play sports together.

Clubs were segregated and the government began to encourage sports among its women.

Today, as many as 2 million women participate in some kind of organized sport, up from about 12,000 before the revolution, according to Faezeh Hashemi, president of the Islamic Women Sports Solidarity Council who helped establish the women's games. The number of female coaches or referees increased from less than a dozen to 10,000, said Hashemi, an accomplished athlete and a member of Iran's parliament.

On a recent morning at the Hejab Club, the swimming pool was filled with dozens of middle-aged and elderly women attending an aqua aerobics class. In the days before the revolution, this was a men's only club known as the Crown Club. Now, it's downtown Tehran's equivalent of the YWCA -- allowing only women.

"Our women love sports. They need somewhere like this. Mothers need to have a healthy body and healthy mind," said Zahra Mousavi, the club's manager. "This is their only ticket to that. We feel more at ease and comfortable [here] because we are able to maintain our belief and a physically fit life."

Iran started the Islamic games in 1993 to provide religious Muslim women with an opportunity to compete internationally. A foundation headed by Hashemi, the daughter of the former president, oversees the games.

"The Islamic games provides the chance for Islamic women to play all sports without the worry of the hejab," said Zahra Mahrughi, Iran's medal-winning rifle shooter.

The events are held in accordance with Islam's modesty codes. Events like swimming or basketball in which women do not fully cover their bodies are open only to female spectators. Men are permitted only at the opening ceremonies or matches like horseback riding, shooting and chess.

In those venues, athletes wear the Islamically correct head scarves known as hejabs, baggy warm-up suits and a lightweight, coat-like garment known as a manteau (the French word for coat).

At the Hejab Club, photographs depict female kayakers and skiers in black head scarves. But in the privacy of the gym, Iran's female karate team practices in bare feet and uncovered heads. The athletes jog around the gym before lining up for their practice routines. They punch at the air with their fists and snap their ankles in defensive kicks.

Women dressed in the black cloaks known as chadors sit in the stands. On a gym wall are the words of Islamic Iran's founder, the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini: "A good Islamic athlete should have a good Islamic attitude."

Ashraf Amini, 32, coaches the Iran women's karate team. She is also a team member. These are her first Islamic games. When Amini competes, she will do so in traditional white cotton martial arts garb. There will be no men in the stands.

She would like to compete one day with athletes from all countries, from all religions, but she says, "Only if what we believe in is considered too."

Iman Rezai, 24, attended the games at the invitation of his sister, who helped organize the opening ceremonies. The delegations of Islamic women's athletes impressed him -- it "shows the unity of our culture," he said.

"Of course I'd like to see [all] the actual sporting events," Rezai said. "In Islamic terms, no one could accept it. But for me personally, why not?"

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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