Iranian golfer at Women's Islamic Games

TEHRAN, Iran (WOMENSENEWS)–The Fourth Women’s Islamic Games–designed to integrate women’s sports with the requirements of Sharia, or Islamic law–ended yesterday, with 1,300 female athletes from 43 nations competing in 18 events and drawing a total attendance of 10,000.

Iran, host country since the 1992 start of the games, took first-place. Sprinter Leila Ebrahimi ran 1,500 meters in 4 minutes, 37 seconds breaking the Iranian record as well as her own personal record. Indonesia and Senegal tied for second place and Armenia went home with the bronze.

But in a competition that plays down publicity–male spectators, male referees and photography are only allowed in golf, shooting and archery–one of the biggest events of the games was the immensely popular opening ceremony.

Free and open to the public, the ceremony caused huge traffic jams on Sept. 23 as vehicles, including flagged diplomatic cars and busloads of athletes dressed in formal national attire, chugged their way to Enqelab Sports Arena in northern Tehran.

In 1996–just a year after it was made legal for Iranian women to cycle in public–the opening ceremonies pushed the cultural envelope by including female cyclists as part of the dance parade.

This year, the ceremony once again raised eyebrows as male and female dancers performed together on the same stage. While many Iranians enjoy such dancing in the privacy of their homes, it is still an unusual sight in the capital of the religiously conservative country to see men and women dancing side by side in a large public stadium.

From Adam and Eve to Arash

Dressed almost identically in long beige costumes with giant earthen-colored bead necklaces that reached their knees, the dancers performed an opera-style ballet with subject matter that ranged from the story of Adam and Eve to Arash, the legendary and superhuman Persian archer. The dancers were volunteers from local universities who trained with Iranian actress Farzaneh Kaboli for six months.

Faezeh Hashemi, founder and president of the Islamic Federation of Women’s Sports, which organizes the games, believes the dancing breaks no religious law, but knows she may get complaints. “We will have to wait and see,” she told Women’s eNews.

Islamic Federation of Women’s Sports formed in 1992 and held the first Islamic games the following year, giving Muslim women a chance to compete athletically without breaking the rules of Sharia.

All coaches and support staff at the games are women. In previous years it was very common for athletes to be coached by their mothers; that is still often the case, although to a lesser extent this year. For instance, Iranian swimmer Shokoofeh Sadeghipand, a 16-year-old chemistry student, was coached by her equestrian mother. Sadeghipand won second place in the 200-meter backstroke, coming in behind Farnaz Nikou, another Iranian.

No Men or Cameras Allowed

In most of the 18 events athletes compete in attire that adheres to Olympic uniform regulations, but leaves much of their bodies exposed. Men and cameras are not allowed to enter the fields where these events are held.

Since Islamic dress code is enforced in few other countries that can host large-scale international competitions, Iranian women do not participate in international championships except archery, shooting or golf, which allows them to wear veils and long, modest dresses. For many Iranian women, the event is the only chance to compete, as the world comes to them.

Iran’s government provides $1.4 million in direct cash to the federation to stage the games, which this year cost the federation $2.8 million. Half of the funds were donated by commercial sponsors, both in kind and cash.

There is no rule saying Iran must host the event. But the expense and requirement of providing courts and fields that are sealed from public view–allowing women to wear body-exposing uniforms without breaking standards of modesty–mean that Iran has so far hosted all four previous events and is expected to do so again in 2009.

Farideh Hadavi, secretary general of the federation, says future funding for the games can be considered guaranteed, since there is immense support from within Iran and all but one corporate sponsor–the Korea-based electronics manufacturer, Samsung–were Iranian.

They Also Come for Camaraderie

Participants say the games are as much about camaraderie and morale building as sport.

The British futsal team–soccer with five on each side–comes not only to compete but also for the opportunity to represent their country, where they often feel marginalized. If they choose to observe the hijab, or Islamic dress code, they have little opportunity to train professionally or use existing facilities. A lack of funding also prevented more British teams from making it to this year’s games.

“America and Afghanistan, best friends!” said Rubina Muqademar at one point during the games, as she hugged Sarah Kureshi in their hotel lobby after a day of competitions.

Meanwhile, Texas-born Kureshi said she hoped her participation in the event would reaffirm U.S. interest in learning about different people and cultures, including those of Iran.

“Sport is really a global language and I love how it can bring together people,” says Kureshi, a medical student who prays five times a day. “I am appreciative to Iran for hosting these games and I am so proud to represent America as a Muslim female athlete here.”

International tensions, however, did mar the spirit of sports diplomacy.

Seven self-financed U.S. athletes were denied visas even though Hashemi, the president of the Islamic Federation of Women’s Sports, placed personal calls to the Iranian embassy.

The sports federation had invited the athletes to introduce Iranians to ultimate Frisbee, the low-cost game that combines aspects of basketball and football rules in which players score by throwing a plastic disc down a field into an end zone.

Khadeeja Balkhi is a business journalist currently based in Karachi, Pakistan. Recently she wrote from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and hopes her writing will help bridge gaps between women the world over.

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