Iran's Leader Reverses Decision on Women in Soccer Stadiums

In the first public rift between Iran's hardline president and his conservative backers, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday reversed his decision to allow women to attend soccer matches, a government spokesman said.

Ahmadinejad backed down on his earlier pledge about a month before the Iranian national team plays in the World Cup soccer championship in Germany.

In April, Ahmadinejad had said that he would let women attend soccer matches in a separate section of the stands to "improve soccer-watching manners, and promote a healthy atmosphere."

But Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — who under the Islamic Republic's constitution has the final say — has disapproved the move.

CountryWatch: Iran

"The president has decided to revise his decision based on the supreme leader's opinion," Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hossein Elham said.

Ahmadinejad's decision to allow women into stadiums had provoked outrage among the hardline Shiite Muslim clerics who supported his election last year and who have tightly controlled Iranian society since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Muslim clerics in Qom, a leading center of Shiite scholarship, angrily remarked that "the president should consult religious authorities before making a decision on this case."

Several conservative political parties also questioned the presidential decree, saying the society was not ready for such a move. One hard-line group, Ansar Hezbullah, held a demonstrations to protest the decision.

Ahmadinejad appeared to have bowed to conservative pressure and shelved his decree. "The supreme leader has ordered a revision of the decision to respect the ruling of the grand ayatollahs," the government spokesman said.

Iran's legal code based on Islamic law imposes tight restrictions on women. They need a male guardian's permission to work or travel. They are not allowed to become judges, and a man's testimony in court is considered twice as important as a woman's.

Iranian men can divorce almost at will, while women must go through a long legal battle and often relinquish rights in return for divorce.

In March, police charged a peaceful women's rights protest in Tehran, beating women and men and provoking condemnation from international rights groups.

Despite such restrictions, Iranian women have more rights than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Muslim countries. They can drive, vote and run for office.