It's not everyday in India that one can spot women playing table tennis wearing the traditional head scarf, manto (coat) and trousers. It might seem out of place in a game that's played in shorts and shirts, but for the girls from Iran and Qatar, it's normal.
"We can only participate in sports where we can wear clothes according to the Islamic dress code," said Iran coach, Vida Abdi Dezfooly, during the 17th Asian Junior Table Tennis Championships on Friday.
Iranian women participate in table tennis, football, taekwondo, athletics, shooting or karate but not in swimming and gymnastics.
Recently, FIFA banned the Iranian women's football team from playing in an Olympic qualifier against Jordan on the grounds of 'breaking rules'. Asked if the paddlers had ever faced such discrimination, there was an emphatic "no". In fact, no other sporting federation has a problem with their tunics, barring FIFA, claimed the paddlers. "FIFA is very rigid unlike other sporting organisations," said Vida, who has been coaching the junior team for four years. "It was a sad day for us. If any other country has a problem, we would want to talk and resolve the issue. One must tolerate other religions."
Ping pong became popular in the Islamic country over 65 years ago when the British introduced the sport. Since then, there has been no looking back. Over 3000 women players play the sport. Even in the school curriculum, playing a sport is mandatory and children have the option of taking up table tennis.