Iran's women's soccer team may be sitting out the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over their Islamic uniforms. The young athletes, all under 15, are at the center of a struggle over how to follow Iran's dress code and still compete in the international arena.
Last week the government unveiled the team's new outfits, a modest ensemble of pants, long sleeves, and high knee socks, with a cap that covers their hair. The outfits are designed in red, white and green to match the Iranian flag.
The top female official of Iran's physical education department was apparently offended by the uniforms, saying they were "inappropriate" and that the team would not compete in them. The uniforms had been a compromise; in 2007 FIFA, the organizing body of world soccer, had banned the old uniform because it included the hejab, or Islamic head scarf. The hejab violated FIFA safety regulations and a rule barring religious or political symbols on the field, Reuters reports.
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian women have been required to cover their heads and bodies in public. Fatima Adbollahian, an Iranian filmmaker who made a documentary about the country's female athletes, says women were kept out of athletic competition in the 1980s. As the playing field opened up to women in the 1990s, they joined sports that could accommodate the hejab, like archery and martial arts.
"If there's one thing I love to do...it's sport," said Sonya Shahamati of the Iranian Baseball League. Baseball is a relatively new arrival in the Islamic Republic, and women have taken to running bases in baggy shirts and head scarves.
"On one hand, maybe it's difficult," she told ABC News in 2007, wearing a hejab under her baseball cap. "But in Iran we have to, and we don't have any problem."
But even in the sports they can play in public, Abdollahian, the filmmaker, says that women athletes face stiff challenges.
"They have to still fight for equality -- funding, infrastructure for them is not the same as for male athletes. And of course they also have to deal with certain social tension," she told ABC News.
"The classic role of women in Iran is still the wife, the daughter, the mother. To be a professional athlete in Iran means to pay a much higher price…that takes a lot more energy than it does for male professional athletes."
Still, she says, the past ten years have given women much more opportunity in sports. As for the controversy over women's soccer uniforms, she attributes it to a conservative government growing increasingly strict about Islamic dress.
"Sports have become a very, very important tool of [women's] self-expression…getting rid of extra energy they might not be able to lose or express when they are only bound to work and the private household," she said.
"This is something the government would not be allowed to take from them anymore. It's amazing…it's irreversible."