Iran's new chapter in basketball

Earlier this year, FIBA finally approved a rule allowing players to wear religious headgear. It meant that Iranian women could play basketball in hijabs, thus enabling them to take part in global tournaments for the first time since the revolution of 1979.

Iran’s players with a hijab in action against India at the FIBA U16 Women’s Asian Championship in Bengaluru on Tuesday.   -  Sudhakara Jain

It was after two days of anxiety that Iran finally took the court at the FIBA U-16 Women’s Asian Championship basketball. Until the issues that had cast its participation into doubt were eventually resolved on Monday, the team had endured an uncertain wait.

But coach Elaheh Darestani was not complaining. She had, after all, waited all her life. Earlier this year, FIBA finally approved a rule allowing players to wear religious headgear. It meant that Iranian women could play basketball in hijabs, thus enabling them to take part in global tournaments for the first time since the revolution of 1979.

The new rule came into effect on October 1; Monday’s game over Nepal marked the end of a 38-year hiatus. “We are so happy because we are here now,” says Darestani. “It was our dream. We can now show the world how Iranian girls play.”

Darestani never got to play overseas herself; she competed only in the Iranian Super League, where she has been coaching for 30 years now. “We can now wear the hijab on court,” she says. “We can play in front of men.”

Iran's coach Elaheh Darestani has waited for long for FIBA to approve a rule allowing players to wear religious headgear.   -  Sudhakara Jain

When the Iran-Iraq war erupted, Darestani moved from her native Kermanshah, near the western border with Iraq, to Tehran, where she ran a training camp for the country’s best players. “War had broken out. I could not stay there. So 15 girls came to Tehran, where we trained behind closed doors.”

Acting as translators are Fatemeh Mortazavi and Rojin Talakoub, in their bright, red hijabs. The two take English lessons in Tehran where basketball, they say, is a popular sport among girls. “It’s a good rule,” smiles Mortazavi. “We were hoping that one day we would get to play [at this level]. There are a lot of girls playing basketball in Iran.”

Mortazavi and Talakoub break into a spontaneous grin when asked who their favourite player is. “LeBron James,” they chorus, high-fiving each other. Talakoub, Iran’s point guard, even reveals a Cleveland Cavaliers wristband.

“LeBron said: ‘Women in hijabs, come and play’,” she says. “So I like him.” Darestani, who later confesses she’s more a Stephen Curry fan, merely smiles. She knows new ground has been broken. “This can be a fresh start for us,” she says. “But we always trained. We always hoped.”