President's Daughter Rallies For Women's Sports in Iran

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A WOMAN'S right to dress more freely and to compete in sports is getting a boost from an unlikely corner of the Iranian state -- Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani -- the daughter of the Iranian president.

A dedicated female athlete, Ms. Rafsanjani was trained as a political scientist, but was appointed deputy director of the Iranian Olympic Committee in 1992.

Since then, professional women's sports in Iran have snowballed thanks to this young mother of two children. Rallying for Iran to be represented at international sporting competitions for women, she has argued successfully for broadening women's participation in all sports.

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''There were some cleric jurists who opposed the idea,'' she explains in a recent interview. ''We have to remember that to some [of the more conservative jurists], women speaking in public is a sin.

''But so far, there have not been serious problems that could have prevented the committee from moving on. We have done well,'' she says.

Prior to the 1979 revolution, participation in sports was available only to women who did not mind training with men, ''thus excluding many devout Muslim women,'' Rafsanjani says.

Her influential support has been a boon to the likes of Makin Shareh Shemshaki, who is eagerly waiting to lead the national Iranian women's skiing team to compete internationally.

''I think that we shall be competing soon,'' Ms. Shemshaki says hopefully during a pause in a practice run on the mountain she has skied since she was four.

In addition to wearing a regular ski suit, Iranian women on the slopes must wear a knee-length light coat to meet Islamic rules. Asked if it will be comfortable for skiing, ''I guess yes, but it might hinder the performance during competition,'' she shrugs.

Semshaki says the women's ski team is awaiting senior clergy approval of a modified uniform the women want to wear at international competitions.

While Ms. Rafsanjani crusades to adjust such attire to suit the sport -- up to a point -- she says her views are well within the bounds of strict Islamic law. That law has changed for the better, she says. A devout Muslim, she accepts segregation of the sexes, but she does not accept restrictions by clerics on women athletes.

''Now that sports facilities are segregated, more women can freely practice their favorite sports,'' she says, with a chador, or cape, reaching down over her jeans and tennis shoes.

While Ms. Rafsanjani toes the line with conservative clerics' arguments for segregation, she also deftly counters their arguments against training women athletes for professional competitions.

Her main challenge is reconciling differences between prevailing Islamic laws in her country and conditions for participation in international competetion.

Two major problems facing the Olympic Committee's plans are that most sports uniforms are too revealing to conform to the Islamic dress code, and that Iran's interpretation of Islamic law prohibits women from performing in public or before cameras.

''It is easier with sports like horseback riding, skiing, shooting, and chess ... we have good national teams that can compete in these areas, and there are ways to adhere to the Islamic dress codes in international competition,'' she says. ''But it is almost impossible when it comes to basketball, swimming, and other sports.''

Grappling for a solution that will enable Iranian women to participate in international competitions in all fields, she offers:

''Well, there is the all-women Islamic competition that provides women a chance to compete.'' Rafsanjani founded these games, which were held for the first time in Tehran in February 1993.

''The International Olympic Committee has been there for a long time, why haven't they come out with ideas to enable Muslim women to take part in their competitions,'' she says, raising both arms in frustration. ''This is not an Iranian problem, but women in most Muslim countries cannot yet compete at international competitions.''

While she crusades for greater flexibility, Ms. Rafsanjani isn't apt to forget who her father is. ''Perhaps it is also that people are aware that I am my father's daughter ... perhaps that has helped.''

She avoids discussions of her father's views on women's issues, but she says that he supports her all the way. ''I always seek his advice,'' she adds.

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