Dressed in a scarf and a long blue coat, Lida Fariman practiced her target shooting on a recent afternoon, looking down the barrel of her rifle toward the Asian Games later this year and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, where she hopes to be more of a competitive athlete than simply a pioneer.
It hardly mattered that Fariman finished 46th among 49 competitors in her target shooting event at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Far more significant was her status as the first woman from Iran to participate in the Summer Games since the 1979 Islamic revolution and the first woman ever to carry the flag for her country during the opening ceremony.
''This was very important for Iranian women,'' said Bahar Tavakolinia, 31, who is studying to be a coach at the University of Physical Education in Tehran. ''All over the world, people think we are in prison behind the veil, that we can't do anything. It's not true.''
Prompted in large part by Faezeh Hashemi, an outspoken member of Parliament and the daughter of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former President, Iranian women are taking part in competitive and recreational sport in unprecedented numbers. Hashemi, who is vice president of the Iranian Olympic Committee, said that roughly two million Iranian women participate in some form of sport, compared with 400,000 two years ago and 10,000 before the Islamic revolution began in the late 1970's.
Whatever the recent relaxations of fundamentalist traditions, though, women still participate in sports in some highly circumscribed ways: those who run do so not only in sneakers but in long coats and pants and scarves; the country's aspiring downhill skiers are not likely to be competitive soon in light of the fact that skin-tight, aerodynamically advantageous ski outfits are taboo, still deemed too provocative; women who water ski must wear a waterproof coat and a scarf, which can be dangerous as well as cumbersome; women can watch soccer on television, but cannot enter the actual stadiums.
But the changes, often profound, sometimes quite subtle, can be seen across the country. Approval has been given for schoolgirls to again play soccer, the national sport that was banned for women during the revolution. Many recreational sports are no longer segregated by gender in Tehran's city parks. Visitors to Mellat Park in central Tehran in the early morning can see men and women jogging together and playing table tennis. In the afternoon in Laleh Park, women in-line skate and play recreational soccer with men. In the most private of Tehran's sports clubs, men and women sometimes even swim together.
Sport, to be sure, is hardly the greatest achievement for Iran's 32 million women, who enjoy the right to vote and to hold office, and work as teachers, lawyers, doctors and businesswomen. Nor is it the most urgent concern in an Islamic nation where women cannot work or get a passport without a husband's permission, where they must have a father's written consent to marry, where they can be divorced for no reason and where, with few exceptions, they automatically lose custody of their children when a marriage dissolves.
Still, Hashemi views sports for women as an essential means of cultural reform, and the breakthroughs in participation and competition, she says, reflect the incremental freedoms gained since last year with the election of the relatively moderate President Mohammad Khatami, who is widely supported by women.
Gains on the Field, Gains in Confidence
Essentially, the same sports available to Iranian men are available to women, from chess to karate. Occasionally, women compete against men in equestrian events. When competing indoors, women can wear shorts and T-shirts to play sports like basketball and volleyball, but men, and especially photographers, are not allowed to watch. And women wear Western-style ski suits on the slopes, as long as the outfits are not too tight and include a hat or scarf.
A sports high school that admits women has opened in Tehran, a female sportswriter has begun covering the men's national soccer team and there is discussion in the Parliament about whether female spectators should again be allowed into stadiums to watch the national sport.
''Women become more self-confident, bolder, they learn how to cooperate with others and work in groups,'' said Hashemi, 35, president of the Islamic Countries' Women's Sports Solidarity Council and a mother of two who favors lumberjack shirts, jeans and sneakers under her black chador. ''It can be a very effective role in women's participation in society.''
There are still clerics and others who argue that sports for women are barred by the Koran. Others protest against sports as trifling and sexually suggestive. But Hashemi and many other women say those arguments are born of a misreading of religious texts, or are made for narrow-minded political reasons. ''Some believe that if women have the opportunity to do what they want in sport, they will take advantage and be free in every field,'' Hashemi said.
As assertive as she has been, Hashemi has worked firmly within the traditions of Islam. She favors clothing that covers everything but the face and hands of female Iranian athletes who compete outdoors, and she criticized the ''nudity'' of women who competed in brief uniforms at the Atlanta Olympics. She does not believe women should attend soccer matches until the ''moral behavior'' of men at the stadiums can be improved.
Many Western women would find such restrictions untenable. Iranian women must also wear coats, long pants and scarves for the annual ''Olympic Run,'' a distance race held in Tehran in the summer, when temperatures routinely top 100 degrees.
Such limitations of custom and dress have confined Iranian women to relatively few international competitions and have stymied their development in relation to other Muslim nations such as Algeria, Morocco and Syria, which have all produced female Olympic champions in track and field. Women's groups have heavily criticized Iran for the lack of opportunities for female athletes.
Mehranguiz Kar, a lawyer here, said that young women have become avid readers of sports magazines and that some schools have begun letting women watch soccer matches on television, fearing protests if the games were not available. Last December, 5,000 women pushed their way into the national soccer stadium to greet the Iranian soccer team after it qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 20 years.
Despite the Changes, Restrictions Still Chafe
These are signs that women want an active role in all parts of society, Kar said. But she questioned whether sport could provide any real liberation as long as women are forced to compete in scarves and long coats.
''We have to give Faezeh credit for opening the issue, but she cannot do more than that,'' Kar said. ''She doesn't believe in participating unless women are covered, and she wants them separated from men. How can you run if you are covered? Even if she doesn't believe in that, she can't say it and remain in the Parliament. The culture really hasn't changed. We must find other solutions for the problems of Iran.''
One morning last month, a half dozen female college students gathered at a Tehran hotel to meet and collect autographs from players on the national soccer team. According to Islamic custom, the women were forbidden from socializing with the players or even shaking their hands.
''We're not happy with these restrictions; they're terrible,'' said Lida, a 21-year-old handball player who asked that her last name not be used for fear of punishment by Islamic hard-liners. ''We must play in these coats that tie up our feet and are very hot. And we are not allowed to freely associate with the soccer players. The morals police will arrest us and beat us with whips.''
One of Hashemi's most ambitious projects reflects both the encouraging advancements and frustrating limitations of sport for women. In 1994, the first public cycling facility for women opened in Chitgar Park, west of Tehran. The cycling paths are segregated, however, which means that families who want to go biking must divide up between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters. Two years ago, 20 Islamic militants attacked female cyclists in the park and criticized Hashemi.
At the Hejab sports complex in central Tehran, where she has begun organizing clinics for women who want to become soccer coaches and referees, Hashemi wears shorts when she comes to play basketball, free to dress comfortably in the absence of men.
''When I get a chance to prove myself in sport, I have confidence to prove myself in other areas of society, too,'' said Poopak Manavi, 27, a former college basketball player who now coaches swimming at the Hejab complex.
Southwest of Tehran, the national equestrian team trains at the Afshin riding complex amid groves of pine and maple trees. At a recent practice session, 23-year-old Elmira Mostajaboldaveh wore a scarf under her riding hat and a thigh-length coat over her jodhpurs as she worked with a golden Russian stallion. Two years ago, Mostajaboldaveh said, she competed against men in France and finished second among 84 riders.
''The other riders were very interested that an Iranian woman competed and that in such an outfit she was capable of winning,'' Mostajaboldaveh said.
About 30 women have seriously taken up the equestrian sport in Tehran, compared with 1 or 2 before the revolution, said Ali Rezaee, who coaches the men's and women's national teams. The women are as capable as the men, he said, and may compete in the Asian Games in Thailand later this year.
''The men used to think we were scared,'' said Bita Vahdati, 33. ''I showed them I was not afraid and that there is no difference between us.''
Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the controversial Mayor of Tehran, has encouraged a sunrise exercise program for women in Mellat Park. On a recent morning, Nilovfar Amani, 36, descended a rain-rinsed hill with her husband, Mohsen, her breath white with exertion in the early morning chill.
''It's good for my self-confidence and my weight, which doesn't change all the time anymore,'' Amani said, explaining that she had been jogging for a year and a half. Along with jogging shoes, she wore the mandatory scarf and coat that came to her ankles.
''Yes, it is hot, but if you are interested in running, you have to accept it,'' she said.
As she has done three to six days a week for years, Maleh Latifi, 50, led a group of women in aerobics. In the early days of the revolution, she said, the morals police would approach with guns drawn, telling the women to stop because they were moving their bodies in a sexual manner.
''We resisted so much, they gave up,'' Latifi said.
Slowly Turning Dreams Into Goals
Since then, women have advanced from fighting for aerobic exercises to participating in the Olympics. Even now, two years later, Fariman cannot find words to describe the experience of carrying the Iranian flag into the Olympic Stadium.
''They wanted to prove that women are respected and valued enough to carry the flag,'' said Fariman, who is 25.
She is from Tabriz, in the northwest corner of Iran, and took up shooting at 17. The sport dovetailed with her interests in pottery and painting, she said, because ''I've always been interested in things that make you concentrate.''
Her father tried to steer her toward a more developed sport, but she insisted on shooting. Then he died before she could show him that she belonged in the Olympics. Her mother stayed up in the middle of the night to watch her march into the stadium, and in a rare moment, the Iranian news media paid great attention to a female athlete.
Fariman is also a sportswriter for a magazine in Tabriz, and believes that Iranian women need more international competition and better facilities if they intend to improve. There is a shooting range in Tabriz, but the arms are old, she said, and it is sometimes months between her trips to train in Tehran.
Still, her hope for Sydney, however remote, is the hope of every Olympic athlete -- to win a medal.
''I have to get it first,'' Fariman said, ''and then I will tell you how I feel.''