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Defying ban, Iranian women watch World Cup with men in public

By Reza Sayah, CNN
updated 7:34 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women defy ban on watching sports with men to cheer on Iran in World Cup
  • Ban was introduced after 1979 Islamic Revolution; mixed crowds deemed un-Islamic
  • Women continue to fight for equality

Tehran, Iran (CNN) -- It is rare for women and men in Iran to enjoy the thrill of sports together in public, but it happened over the weekend when several restaurants and cafes appeared to ignore a ban on broadcasting the World Cup.

Inside one Tehran coffee shop, a young, veiled Iranian woman held her fiancé's hand tightly as the seconds ticked down in Iran's heart-stopping World Cup match against South American powerhouse Argentina.

Another woman gently bit her French-manicured nails as she sat between two male friends who were drenched with nervous sweat and fast losing their voices.

Throughout the rest of the cafe other women intermittently cheered, gasped, and shouted instructions at the direction of the big screen TV.

"100 percent it's better this way," said Negar Valayi. "It doesn't happen often. It would be great if we have more of this."

"It's actually much better to watch it with a bunch of people around because it makes you feel more excited," said Roya Marzbahan.

Authorities in Iran banned women from entering most sporting events following the 1979 Islamic Revolution because mixed crowds enjoying games was deemed un-Islamic.

For the past 35 years, the crowds at football games -- Iran's most popular sport -- have been all male.

Iranian women were briefly allowed to attend volleyball matches during the presidency of moderate Mohammad Khatami but the ban was reinstated in 2005 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power.

In an apparent effort to avoid mixed crowds watching this year's World Cup, authorities warned restaurants not to broadcast games.

"We were told not to turn on the TV because it might create some problems," a restaurant hostess told CNN on the phone.

In more subtle measures designed to deter mixed crowds, women don't appear on World Cup billboards throughout Tehran, and state TV uses a delay of several seconds during matches to censor images of female fans deemed too racy for viewers.

But in a country where conservative social norms often clash with a young, defiant, fun-loving population, women have continued to demand equality.

Earlier this month, several Iranian women snuck into a men's volleyball match in Tehran disguised as Brazilian fans, state media reported.

Others protested outside the match.

"We have rights too. We should be able to go to games," said Negar Valayi.

"They're taking our rights," said Roya Marzbahan. "It's our right to watch our teams."

This month state media reported that female Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi was "investigating" the ban on women attending volleyball matches -- a sign perhaps that Iran's moderate President Hassan Rouhani is heeding Iranian women's demand for equal rights to enjoy sports.

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