World Cup

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(HOST)The month-long World Cup Soccer Tournament has just gotten under way, and commentator Cheryl Hanna has been thinking about what this competition, and this sport, means for women – here in America and beyond.

(HANNA) Like many women world-wide, I’m about to become a widow – a soccer widow. For the next month, my husband will be sitting in his easy chair, passionately watching the globe’s most seductive sporting event – World Cup Soccer.

And I suspect that when games aren’t on, he’ll be at the field to play pick-up with other soccer fans, inspired by all those new moves and old country rivalries that play out every four years.

In between viewing soccer and playing it, he’ll be watching endless analysis of the tournament on cable stations devoted exclusively to the sport. It’ll be World Cup – 24/7.

Maybe there are some women who’d resent this, but me, I’m not complaining.

While I may not be a soccer fan per se, I am certainly a fan of what soccer can do for women, and for their rights.

Take Iran, where women have been forbidden to attend soccer games since 1979. Conservative clerics argue that women should not look at a man’s bare legs, nor should men and women mingle in public. Other strict Muslim countries, like Saudi Arabia, have similar restrictions on women attending sporting events.

But last summer, when Iran qualified for the world cup after beating Bahrain, there was a ground swell of protests from Iranians who thought it absurd that women could not cheer on their national team in person. Many women went so far as to dress as men to attend games, risking harsh sanctions if caught.

Then, this past April, the Iranian president said it was OK for women to attend games, as long as they sat in segregated seating. He reasoned that women attending would add civility back to the sport.

Yet, after protests from Islamic clerics, the Ayatollah, who has the last say on these matters, re-instated the ban.

Iranian women are oppressed in many more fundamental ways, but because of the World Cup, there’s now international attention on Iran’s restrictive policies. It’s my hope that all soccer fans, whether men or women, will encourage their own governments to pressure the Iranians and other repressive regimes to provide more basic human rights to women.

In our own country, soccer has opened up a world of sport, and courage, and competition, for many of our daughters, as well as our sons, who’ll be cheering on our men’s team this month, just as they cheered on the Women’s World Cup team two years ago.

My own daughter, not yet three, is already kicking a soccer ball and dreaming with her dad about attending the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

More than any other sport, Soccer’s become an international symbol that women have the right to play and the right to watch, or not.

These are rights we can all celebrate. So rather than complain all month, well, you know what they say: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton.

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