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Iranian women take to the sky, finding "power" in paragliding

TEHRAN, Aug 22 (AFP) - Dressed in the required headscarves and body-length cloaks, a team of 20 young Iranian women has been taking to the skies as part of the newest sport fad for females in the Islamic republic -- paragliding.

"It's fascinating. You just have to keep from getting scared," said Nadia, a Tehran resident in her 20s, adjusting the helmet over her Islamic veil as she prepared for another flight from a hilltop just northwest of Tehran.

"I had always dreamed of paragliding alone in the sky," she said, stressing that the exhilarating and even dangerous ride gives her a feeling of "power."

Roughly a dozen members of the team, aged between 13 and 33, were preparing for their debut flights on a recent Sunday after passing their on-the-ground training course in the sport, a rugged combination of parachuting and gliding.

The women were accompanied by two female trainers and three guides as they prepared for their first taste of solo soaring off a hilltop in Ab-Ali, close to the capital.

Once their gear is in order, and their cloaks safely tucked away underneath their harnesses, the women move slowly along the hillside, pick up speed -- and then launch themselves into the blue.

Paragliding is quickly becoming the sport of choice for young Iranian women whose sporting options have been limited since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran's strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, means they must wear their headdress and cloak at all times in public, limiting their sports to those activities -- skiing, shooting, riding -- not unduly hampered by their clothing.

Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and one of the leading promoters of women's sports in the Islamic republic, said earlier this year that women's football was also becoming very popular.

Since Iran qualified for last year's football World Cup, she said, women are taking a growing interest in the sport, both in Iran's big cities and its smaller towns.

But for now, in the capital at least, paragliding is the newest trend, taking women high into the air and away from their daily routines. Sima, preparing for her first flight after passing her training course, said she was ready to put her knowledge to the test as she strapped on her helmet and prepared to soar.

"We understand the theory of it, but today is when we get serious," she said. Just a few steps later, she was aloft.


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