Iranian Sports and Women

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The magic of the World Cup.

It reaches every single corner of the world, binds and unites every single soul in a perfect harmony. The harmony of watching history being made, of tasting glory and avoiding tragedy.

It is so much more than a game. It is a landmark in humanity. A measurement of humanity’s heights – nay, it IS the height of humanity. People of different races, creeds and continents unite in a single melody of romance, adventure, beauty and raw football.

For besides being the last hope for a great nation to recover from deep social issues, it is also changing countries everywhere. None more so than inside the deeply contested Iranian territory.

Women and sports are intrinsically entwined in the history of the Middle-Eastern nation. 2,500 years ago, women in the royal courts of Persia invented the classical game of polo. The Emperor and his cohorts would play against the Queen and her servants.

However, in 1979, the new Islamic government in control of Iran deemed it too un-Islamic to allow men & women to attend sporting events together. It was a major setback for the rights of females everywhere, as it basically resulted in women being banned and missing out on sports altogether. At first, football was the hardest hit, but later on, even basketball & volleyball were removed from the women’s view.

However in the 1990s, a group of women formed the “White Headscarves” association in order to protest for women’s rights to enjoy sports in the country. They stood outside stadiums holding up banners clamouring for women to be allowed to enjoy sports like their male counter-parts. In a nation where women have generally had very difficult times and many infringements on their rights, this was a revolutionary act. Finally, in 2006, the gates of the Azadi Stadium were finally opened for World Cup qualifier against Qatar. Women watched Iran go to the World Cup in tandem with men to mark a landmark day. This was in addition to the several women who dressed up as boys to gain entrance into the matches to proudly wave their flags and heroically cheer their national team on.

That same year, popular President Mahmoud Ahdmadinejad wrote a letter to the head of the Iranian Physical Education Organiztion pleading with him to allow women to attend matches. However, as the debates went back and forth, a leading ayatollah named Ahmad Katami claimed that the legislation on the women’s hijab and their chastity could not possibly be observed. Hence, the requests were refused. The ban was then magnified to include the prohibition of cinema screenings of football matches.

The Iranian government also took extra measures to ensure that women wouldn’t attend football matches; they made sure that the advertisements were completely masculine. They also passed a law stating that anybody buying tickets online would have to submit a personal national ID. The identification numbers were then cross-checked against a national database that would ascertain their gender. If they were females, the server would reject them.

But the Iranian women refused to be foiled, and so they made it a habit to buy tickets on their male relatives’ names. Others bought tickets on the black market. Even with all these measures, many women were still barred entry at the stadium gates. The security guards had an interesting excuse not to allow the girls in – they claimed that girls got too excited but couldn’t be held back because they were female. They even went as far as to attack the girls and kick and punch them. Truly shameful behaviour, but not even pain could stop the women’s freedom drive.

They fought on.

Assistance arrived from the Iranian National Volleyball association who stated that volleyball was a “family game” and threatened to pull out of the Olympic Games if the ban on women continued. The most humiliating moment for Iranian women must have surely come when vans full of Brazilian fans – women included – were allowed into the stadium. The guards claimed that since they weren’t Iranian, they were allowed to. This must’ve come as a huge blow to the credibility of the Iranian guards’ respect for their own women.

This was in the midst of a censorship on broadcasting throughout the nation; women deemed too indecent for viewers were cut out of the live feeds by delaying them for a few seconds.

But Iranian women weren’t beaten yet. They sneaked into the stadiums disguised as Brazilian fans.

All of this has added up to the current situation – young, fun-loving Iranian supporters are ignoring strict laws that prevent them from watching football with men. Restaurants and parties are being held to support the Iranian side during this World Cup, and major strides are taking place that hold hope for the future of women’s’ rights in Iran.

Argentina’s last-minute defeat of the small Asian nation was not enough to dampen spirits in homes and restaurants all over the country. People came onto the streets of Tehran to cheer at the team’s efforts; men and women alike. The scenes of unity and joy were glorious.

Iran may still be undergoing a tough age for women’s rights, but youth and openness can change all that. Let’s hope it does.


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