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Iranian Duo Make History in Women's Volleyball by Moving to Bulgaria

Iranian volleyball players Maedeh Borhani (C) and Zeinab Giveh (L) take part in a training session of "Shumen" volleyball club in Shumen, Bulgaria, Jan. 14, 2017.

Iran's first two women volleyball players to compete outside the Islamic Republic joined Bulgarian club Shumen this month, a move which has taken years of negotiation with Iranian authorities and which could help break down some gender barriers at home.

Women are still not allowed to attend men's volleyball matches in Iran despite attempts since President Hassan Rouhani's election in 2015 to relax some of the strict Muslim rules that limit women's activities to the family and home.

Maedeh Borhani, 28, and team captain Zeinab Giveh, 34, arrived in the northeastern town of Shumen amid a rising tide of nationalism, sparked by huge migrant inflows to Europe over the past two years, with Bulgaria being a popular transit routes.

Shumen has a centuries-old Muslim community and Muslims make up about 12 percent of Bulgaria's population of 7.2 million, but in September the government banned wearing face veils in public.

Borhani and Giveh will be the first in the Bulgarian league wearing hijabs but Borhani said what players wear should not be what matters.

"The hijab is worn with pride by the Iranian women," she told Reuters. "Hijab is a belief, it's a religion and that's not important when we're playing."

Borhani also said that the move to Shumen could also perhaps open a new frontier for Iranian women athletes to move abroad.

"I think [the transfer] is opening a new way for all female athletes in Iran, especially volleyball players," she said.

Giveh agreed: "I think there are other Iranian players who can play in Europe."