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Iranian women tackle rugby in Islamic republic

November 04, 2007

TEHRAN, Nov 3: Elham Shahsavari, a 24-year-old Iranian woman, believes she has found her perfect sport, undeterred by a strict Islamic dress code and the long commute to training.

Shahsavari is a member of the Tehran women’s rugby team.

Rugby and women may not seem an ideal combination in Islamic Iran but girls are taking to one of the toughest sports with enthusiasm, amid greater official encouragement for them to participate in physical activities.

“In early 2006, Gorgan University advised me to play rugby because of my physical power,” said the well-built Shahsavari, who overcame objections from her family who worried about her travelling to training from a Tehran suburb.

“Rugby Union was just my thing,” she said.

All women must cover their heads and bodies in Iran and the rugby field is no exception.

The players dart around the pitch wearing the ‘maghnaeh,’ a garment that fully covers the head, shoulders and neck, as well as a loose blue waistcoat, long-sleeved dark T-shirts and loose tracksuit trousers.

Hardly a uniform designed for a sport like rugby, but the players don’t seem to mind, especially when the game allows them to let off steam in a way that is unimaginable elsewhere in their lives.

Iranian women proudly see themselves as the most emancipated in the Middle East but still have to combine their careers and leisure activities with traditional expectations of childbearing, cooking and cleaning.

Rugby Union, though, offers the excitement and physical activity that is sometimes lacking elsewhere. “Pass the ball! Tackle her! Catch it!” shout the women as they run and tumble around the field like their male counterparts.

“I am extraordinarily interested in rugby and it does not matter what I wear. It is not uncomfortable,” said Sahar Azizi, 16, a high school student.

It would have been inconceivable a quarter of a century ago, in the early years of the 1979 Islamic revolution when competitive sports for women were strongly discouraged, for Iranian women to play so physical a sport as rugby.

But much has changed since then, even if Iranian women’s sports still have a long way to go before they are truly competitive on the international arena.

It was in the 1990s that women in Iran started to play sports again, largely thanks to the encouragement of Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of then-president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Initially women mainly took part in stationary sports such as archery and shooting but now they compete in a wide range of activities including strength-based disciplines such as rowing, martial arts and, now, rugby.

“This is not a violent sport for women at all, despite what people think.

We need to discharge our energy,” said Zahra Nouri, the team’s captain, who is a student of mechanics at Qazvin University west of Tehran.—AFP