Play like a Girl in Iran... just don't watch like one.
BY: SHIREEN AHMED
The colourful world of football is composed of players, coaches, teams and most importantly fans. The loyalty and passion of global football fans is unparalleled. Their energy, support are motivating factors for the players and their presence at matches is an important indicator on the overall success of clubs.
Football fandom is so important and ingrained in society that there are organizations created to represent the right of supporters and fans to lower ticket prices, safe standing and protection of clubs.
The world is abuzz with excitement as the World Cup Brazil 2014 qualifying matches are underway. This past week one of the qualifying matches caught some attention. Iran played South Korea and won 1-0.
Iran is one of the tops teams in Group A of the Asian Football Confederation and are ranked 54 by FIFA’s ranking. Crowds in Tehran were almost at 80,000 at Azadi Stadium and elated that their team had defeated a team that is ranked much higher (South Korea 28).
Iranian nationals are passionate about football. Along with wrestling and volleyball it is the most popular sport. They flock to the matches and celebrate accordingly. They are allowed to rejoice in the jubilant atmosphere- unless they are Iranian women.
Women have been banned from watching live matches in public since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. They have been relegated to staying at home and supporting the teams in private.
Most recently Iranian women were not allowed to watch any Euro Cup 2012 matches that were screened publicly. This heightens a level of frustration among a large part of the population already struggling with image and regulations in Iran.
Despite the impermissibility, after the match there was a media release of two women dressing up as men in order to attend the Iran-Korea game with male relatives. They posted pictures and added a video of match highlights. This issue is of utmost importance as it clearly denotes that in order for women to partake in something that most cultures consider a gender neutral normal activity, they must be identifiable as men. In most other Muslim countries women are allowed and do attend attend matches in public. Often they may be harassed or leered at (another patriarchal societal ill) but they are not punishable by law.
When Iran beat Japan and qualified for the World Cup in 2006, many women defied policy and tried to enter the stadium forcefully clashing with police. The stadium was filled to capacity (100,000) and rejoiced in the win. Women danced in the streets and the strict Islamic Police were far more lenient during the celebrations.
One of the most ardent supporters of female supporters’ right to access public stadiums is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In his first term in office in 2006 he tried unsuccessfully to change a law allowing women to attend stadium matches and watch football in public areas.
The reason given by the president seems to have been intended to placate hardliners. "The presence of women and families in public places promotes chastity," he said. As a football-adoring man, he has lobbied and been an outspoken voice for allowing women to watch matches since taking office.
Clerics have rebuffed his efforts and stated that “It was un-Islamic for a woman to look at a strange man’s leg- even if she doesn’t take pleasure from it”. Stadiums are said to be filled with rowdy fan using profanity and inappropriate language. The decision to ban women was explained as a “protection” for them.
Fierce debate ensued and finally Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled in favour of the clerics’ decision.
In many countries around the world a citizens’ patriotic connection is directly correlated to their unwavering support National Sports Teams. Politics and divisions may create cleavages in a society but one thing in common is unbridled passion for the home country team to succeed.
Ironically, women in Iran have won the fight to play football and represent their country wearing hijabs as part of their uniform. In Iran they are permitted to play games without men on-site on quality fields. They have hosted international matches in Tehran against other teams. Iranian Women’s national football team is very supported in Iran and has strong governmental support for development. A new Azadiye Stadium was to be completed in 20120 in Tehran to support the advancement of women’s soccer in Iran.
Iran lobbied strongly for FIFA to lift a hijab ban which prevented the women’s team from qualifying for the London 2012 Olympics. They suited up in specially designed kits with modified hijabs caps without covering their necks. So, women in Iran are encouraged to play football but not to watch men play it.
More frustrating is that non_Iranian women are allowed to attend the matches at Azadi stadium. There were Korean female supporters at the match adding to the fury of Iranian women.
Enjoying the thrilling competition, savouring the moment with others and having access to a game is an interest and right that many women ought to have.
There are movements and women’s organizations campaigning for rights to watch including the Asian Football Confederation.
“So far as the AFC is concerned, there should be no sex discrimination regarding the presence of men and women at stadiums,” AFC Director of National Team competition Shin Mangal was quoted as saying by the Shiite news agency Shafaqna.
Then there are those brave female fans who will go to any lengths to attend the matches despite the ban. These include dressing up as boys and men and sneaking into the matches undetected with risk of being arrested.
In 2006 a brilliant Iranian movie “Offside” detailed the struggles of young, female football fans. It was the story of six young women who were detained as they tried to attend a victorious World Cup qualifying match in Azadi Stadium. It accurately portrayed their interest, knowledge and love for the sport was just as intense as that of the male officers guarding them.
The movie drew critical acclaim and Director Jafar Panahi stated that he was inspired by his own daughter to make the film. He hoped it would “push the limits in Iran and help women”.
The movie ends happily with the six young women escaping detention as the celebrations in Tehran reach a climax and the officers are too distracted.
“Shirin was a Canary” (2012) is a new film from Iran about a young woman who is so football-obsessed that she is expelled from school.
There is a cultural acceptance of women enjoying and playing football in Iran.
In sping 2012 there was much discussion that the ban to be lifted for the AFC U-16 championships being held in Tehran in September and October. Unfortunately, there were no developments and Iranian women are still not permitted to attend games.
With some luck, continued pressure and a new decision by the conservative establishment, they will be able to appreciate and enjoy live matches as well.
“They think our minds will be poisoned if we go to football, that we will hear shouting that will offend us and will see the players' legs that will horrify us. They live in their cities, Qom and Mashhad and they never come out to see what life is like for us. We are a young people, we are modern, we don't need protecting. It's ridiculous. But they can't hide us away forever. We'll continue going to the matches whether they let us in or not. We're determined." -Noushin Najafi, Iranian footballer