The second Women’s Islamic Games opened in Tehran Saturday, giving hundreds of Muslim women banned by their countries from taking part in international sporting events a chance to compete.
When the games begin today, female athletes will be able to shed their traditional Islamic clothing and wear more suitable - and revealing - outfits because men will largely be absent from the audience.
Ever since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979, women have been forced to cover themselves in public with baggy smocks and head scarves, or loose unsewn sheets called chadors.
Not to do so is considered sexually provocative - and a violation of Islamic law.
Iran and more than two dozen other Islamic countries have refused to send women to international sports competitions. The 10-day Islamic games, first held in 1993, were created to fill the void.
Some events, such as horse-riding, are open to male viewers because Iranian equestrians have designed a horse-jumping chador for their female competitors.
The debate over women in sports has been touchy in Iran.
Last year, it erupted into violence when Muslim activists opposed to women riding bicycles in public attacked men and women cyclists at the Chitgar sports complex near Tehran.
Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of a former president and the force behind the games, admits that women participants are subject to some prohibitions, but says the event shouldn’t be judged by Western standards.
“The West has built up a model for women’s sports which Muslim women cannot and should not have to follow,” said Hashemi, who follows Islamic dress codes and is one of 13 women in Iran’s Parliament.
Some of the athletes at the games have more than sports on their minds.
“We are here just to send a message to the Taliban about our rights, otherwise we aren’t really prepared for these games,” said a 25-year-old Afghan athlete. She gave only her first name, Fariba, fearing her family back home could be persecuted if she were identified.
The Taliban militia, which controls most of Afghanistan, has closed schools for girls in the name of Islam and forbids women from working.
The 25 women from Afghanistan were mostly from areas not controlled by the religious army.
Irina Sobancova, a 23-year-old basketball player from the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan, said her team does not find the dress dictates overly strict. “It is not an issue for us,” she said.
Earlier this year, many Iranian women revealed their true feelings about Islamic restrictions, voting overwhelmingly in May elections for Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who promised to give women more opportunities.
The 16 countries taking part in the Tehran games are: Iran, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Oman, Fiji, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Gabon, Guinea, Maldives and Yemen.
They will compete in track and field, karate, swimming, badminton, tennis, basketball, gymnastics and other sports.
As the games opened Saturday, actors played out a scene from an ancient Iranian epic that depicts a powerful hero being defeated in battle by Gordafarid - a woman dressed as a man.
But the actor playing Gordafarid was a man - dressed as a woman.