Stefan Smith, AFP, April 30, 2006
TEHRAN — Iran's hardline President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is coming under heavy fire at home – and it's not because of the worsening international standoff over the Islamic republic's nuclear program.
Last week the president revealed his seldom-seen softer side by ordering an end to a decades-old ban on women entering stadiums for major sporting events, including football matches.
But this directive has not gone down well among religious right-wingers eager to maintain the male-female segregation ushered in by Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Furthermore, some members of Iran's left are also sceptical.
"It would have been better if you had avoided a hasty announcement and consulted," fumed the hardline Jomhuri Eslami newspaper, which usually praises Ahmadinejad as a champion of revolutionary values.
Allowing the fairer sex into stadiums has "emboldened those loose elements that cruise streets and parks of Tehran", it said, evoking fears that Islamic Iran may experience some kind of 'Summer of Love'.
Ahmadinejad announced a week ago that despite reservations, "experience has proven that when women and families are allowed into stadiums, ethics and chastity will prevail".
But the hardline Kayhan newspaper was also working up a sweat. It voiced astonishment that the austere president could even think of letting women into such an "awfully unethical and corrupt environment".
A string of far-right MPs have been warning of "bare legs" and obscenities shouted at referees, while powerful right-wing Shia clerics have also started a pitch invasion.
Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi – considered to be Ahmadinejad's ideological godfather – has filed a complaint from his office in Qom, the clerical nerve-center just south of Tehran.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani, another Qom-based Shia cleric with clout, has also ruled that "women looking at male bodies, even without enjoyment, is not permissible".
"When everyone can easily watch a match live at home, what's the necessity of having women and families in stadiums?" chimed in another grand ayatollah, Nasser Makarem-Shirazi.
And Ayatollah Mirza-Javad Tabrizi has also raised the red card over the "gathering of men and women for corruption-driven actions and the committing of harams [actions forbidden by Islam]."
But Ahmadinejad is sticking by his guns.
"Any distinction between men and women that leads to their separation hurts women. In places where women are present, the atmosphere is healthier," he was quoted as saying in Saturday's press.
And in comments that could easily come from the mouth of a feminist, he argued that "sadly, when we speak of corruption the finger is pointed at women. Are men without reproach?" "Some people think that women are the cause of corruption, but they are wrong," said the president, who is not known to back down.
Iran's Physical Education Organization has meanwhile sought to calm tensions by asserting the directive will take time to implement – given the need for special seating arrangements and women's toilets. It has also asserted that single ladies would remain excluded from stadiums.
Ahmadinejad's ruling was initially greeted with surprise and relief from women's rights activists, who have for years been campaigning for access to football matches given that both sexes in the Islamic republic share an intense passion for the beautiful game.
But some left-wingers remain cynical, arguing the directive was more of a propaganda exercise that will never be put into practice. "This is like a beautiful giftwrapped package that is empty inside," pro-reform journalist Isa Saharkhiz said.
"Ahmadinejad wanted to soften the atmosphere … to earn popularity. But he cannot deliver on this promise and he has to back down. He may not openly back off, so there will be glitches so the decision is not implemented, and people will gradually forget," he predicted.
Mahbubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a feminist activist, is also cynical. "Ahmadinejad is playing the good cop," she said, arguing that the president needed to drum up support at home while he defied UN Security Council demands that Iran freeze its disputed nuclear program. "The government is being very calculating, with the president suddenly coming up with such a decision at the same time as the problems with the Security Council," she said.