By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
It's a man's world for Niloufar Ardalan, one of Iran's best female soccer players and known as Lady Goal for her on-field exploits in international women's Islamic tournaments.
Ardalan says she will not be able to compete in an upcoming tournament in Malaysia because her husband has refused to grant her permission to travel abroad as required by Islamic laws enforced in Iran.
The 30-year-old athlete has captained Iran's national team and was set to compete in the Asian Football Confederation's women's championship in futsal, an indoor version of soccer in which each team fields five players, to be held in the Malaysian town of Nilai on September 21-26.
In Iran, however, married women need the consent of their husbands to leave the country and can be banned from traveling abroad if their spouses do not sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport.
cartoon by Firoozeh Mozaffari, Shahrvand daily
Ardalan says her husband, a sports journalist and television presenter, has used this authority to prevent her from competing in the upcoming tournament because he does not want her to miss the first day of school for her 7-year-old son on September 23.
The frustrated soccer star says she had trained hard for weeks to compete in the games and make her country proud.
"But my husband didn't give me my passport so that I can [participate] in the games, and because of his opposition to my travel abroad, I [will] miss the matches," Ardalan said in a September 11 interview with the news site Nasimonline.ir.
In a September 12 interview with Shirzanan Global, a news portal that promotes participation in sports by female Muslims, Ardalan said that her passport had expired and that her husband had refused to sign a form required for its renewal.
The case highlights Iran's discriminatory laws that favor men, including in matters related to inheritance, divorce, and child custody, and effectively give women the status of second-class citizens.
Iranian men do not need permission from their wives to travel abroad.
"I wish authorities would create [measures] that would allow female athletes to defend their rights in such situations," Ardalan was quoted by Nasimonline.ir as saying.
She added: "These games were very important to me. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to work for my country's flag to be raised [at the games], rather than traveling for leisure and fun."
There has not been any public comment from Ardalan's husband, Mehdi Toutounchi, who, according to Iranian media, has been supportive of women's soccer in the past.
Breaking The Silence
Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian women's rights advocate and the director of the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, says the case demonstrates the need to change the travel law, which she says affects tens of thousands of Iranian women.
"This just shows to what extent this law can impact a woman's life," Sadr said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL. "Even if a woman reaches the highest ranks in politics, sports, or culture, she still needs her husband's consent for one of her most basic rights -- traveling abroad."
Ardalan's case and her decision to go public about the travel ban have attracted considerable attention on social media, where many have condemned her husband's refusal to allow her to compete in the tournament.
"Is this the only way [Ardalan's husband] could prove he's a man?" one woman wrote in a Facebook discussion devoted to the issue.
"Many Iranian men pretend in cyberspace that they're defenders of women's rights. But in practice, and when it comes to the rights of their wives, they act more traditionally than previous generations," another woman wrote.
A man wrote: "This woman's husband must have his own reasons. We shouldn't make one-sided judgements."
Sadr welcomes the ongoing debate. She said Ardalan should be praised for publicly speaking about her plight. "She broke the silence, and this could lead to other women taking the courage to detail and shed light on other similar cases," she said.
Ardalan has said that she will pursue the case through women's rights groups.
"Boys have the issue of military service [which prevents those who have not completed their compulsory service from traveling abroad]. A solution is found for them, and something should be done for women as well," she said in an interview with the daily sports newspaper Goal.
She added, "What is the difference between us?"
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