Some women may attend football without beating

The football world appeared impressed with the announcement by Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that reportedly allowed women to attend major sporting events in the Islamic Republic, ending a ban imposed since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. "Now, women will be permitted to attend football matches played all over the country. The new rule applies to both domestic league competitions as well as the national team games," the Asian Football Confederation's website commented approvingly.

Rob Hughes of the International Herald Tribune saw it as "a significant move to relieve at least one of the pressure points" surrounding Iran's participation in the FIFA World Cup in Germany in June. He also noted that Ahmadinejad had decreed that some of the Islamic dress codes requiring women to cover their heads and bodies "should not be imposed by force."

Very encouraging. So much so that Hughes quoted Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh, a leading Irianian women's rights activist "whose leg was broken last year when she and other women were charged by militia" as they tried to gain access into the national stadium in Tehran.

"We consider this a victory for the women's movement," she said on Radio Free Europe. "Before Mr President issued this order, we were planning on creating some solidarity among Iranian women who live abroad. We were busy working on a campaign to attend matches at the World Cup and chant slogans and have placards."

It did, at first, appear that her president had actually gone further than expected. "The best stands should be allocated to women and families in the stadiums where national and important matches are held. The presence of women and families in public places help bring morality and chastity," he said.

But that was not the end of the story. Members of the religiously-vetted Iranian parliament criticised the decision. “We call on the president to annul the order to allow women into stadiums. The presence of women in stadiums is against moral, social and Islamic values. This is a hasty order. According to Islamic law, it is not right for women to watch men's bare legs" said the MP from Isfahan, Mohammad-Taghi Rahbar. Another said, if the reformists had tried this, there would have been "suicide bombers protesting" on the streets of Tehran. "Our point is not Islamic law. Women can go, but there needs to be cultural education beforehand. I think police can not even provide security for explosive materials, let alone security of women," argued yet another.

One religious leader, Fazel Lankarani, issued a fatwa against the presence of the women in stadiums.

The head of Iran Physical Education, Aliabadi, who had earlier confirmed women would be allowed to attend the games from the start of next season, later clarified the government's position. “The ban on single women still exists and we wont allow single women to attend any games. Only women who come with their familes will be allowed in,” he told reporters.

But women watching football may be only an extra cause of excitement at Iranian stadiums. Often football games become the venue for anti-government protest such as major riots in 2001 and 2005. According to one opposition group, a match in Tehran last weekend was disrupted by young people chanting anti-government slogans. Despite the heavy presence of the State Security Forces, the paramilitary Bassij militia and plainclothes agents, the demo quickly spread. “The sky above the stadium was filled with smoke and the youth attacked and damaged many transit buses and broke their windshields,” it quoted the state-run news agency IRNA.

MEANTIME German security officials are reportedly concerned that the Iranian fans and reporters expected to attend the World Cup to support their national team "may contain some dangerous elements at a time when relations between Tehran and the West are strained".

This follows earlier reports that local neo-Nazis have been identified as a security threat, in part because of sympathies with Iran. Wolfgang Schäuble, German interior minister, told a security conference that "it was now clear that some people in the far-right scene want to use the World Cup as means of raising their profile" and stressed that security measures would be tightened as a response.

"The extremist protests are aimed in part at expressing support for Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, Iranian president, who caused outrage last year by calling for Israel's abolition and by denying the Holocaust, according to intelligence officials," The Financial Times reported. "German security officials at the conference admitted that special security measures were being taken for the Iranian soccer team."

Although Holocaust denial is mostly seen, as UN chief Kofi Annan described it, as "the work of bigots", in Germany it is a serious crime punishable with a prison term of up to five years, a legal position introduced after the country's Nazi Terror Regime was destroyed at the end of the Second World War.

The German government has been one of the biggest critics of Ahmadinedjad’s anti-Israel and Holocaust denial rhetoric and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been leading the European Union campaign to censure him.

However, despite Germany’s official stance, Wolfgang Schaeuble insists the government will not block a visit by Ahmadinedjad. “As far as I am concerned, he is welcome to come to the World Cup. We have every intention of being good hosts,” he said.

Mass protests can be expected if he does. Three former Iran players have announced they will protest any attempt to "politicize" the World Cup with a visit by Ahmadinejad.

"Don't let the Mullahs misuse the World Cup, the World Cup is a place for peaceful and civilized people, not a warmongering regime," said Hassan Nayeb-Agah, who played at the 1978 World Cup. "Don't let Mahmoud Ahmadinejad misuse the World Cup the same way Hitler did the 1936 Olympic Games." Nayeb-Agah was joined at a news conference by former teammate Bahram Mavadat and Asghar Adibi, a member of the Iran team from 1968-74.

The world football body FIFA has also strongly resisted calls for the Iran team to be expelled from the tournament because of Ahmadinejad's policies. But as Iran has to face the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear (uranium enrichment) program, FIFA may yet have to decide on accepting international sanctions against the country or not.

Precedents are quite recent. United Nations international sanctions banned the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from participating in international sporting events from 1992-1994. Although the country qualified for the 1992 European Championship it was replaced by Denmark in the play-offs. The country was also refused entry into the 1994 FIFA World Cup.

See also: UN Security Council on Iran 'not a concern of FIFA' (6 Mar) and AFC urges Iran FA to send its Articles of Association to FIFA (28 Feb) and : Iran claims offense over German football cartoon (15 Feb) and Iran still faced with calls for World Cup ban (26 Jan) and German chancellor will "not push to punish" Iran (20 Jan) and Iran bans Korean sponsor over nuclear vote row (14 Nov 05)