Athletes join the fight for women's rights in Iran
At first glance, the 2022 protests in Iran might not seem like a sports story. But in the lead-up to the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, there were calls to bar Iran from the tournament altogether because of its government’s treatment of women. Women in Iran have some rights, like access to education, the ability to vote and the right to be elected to Parliament—but they can’t choose whether to wear the hijab, and until recently, they couldn’t attend most sporting events. With Iranian women still unable to attend men’s soccer (football) matches in their home country, many have traveled to Qatar to attend World Cup matches.
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IBTIHAJ MUHAMMAD, HOST:
I think it’s been amazing these last few weeks to see people rally behind the Iranian people. But, you know, some have minimized the civil unrest and really just called this a fight about hijab.
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Women in Iran set their head scarves on fire in fury. They are tired of the…
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…Sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Police allege she suffered a heart attack after being arrested for wearing an improper hijab.
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But many women there don’t believe it. And they want answers.
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They’re risking their lives, because now they’re walking without the hijab on the streets. They’re burning that hijab because they…
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Protesters have taken to the streets across the world, from London to Paris. Iran’s anti-hijab protests have gone truly global…
IBTIHAJ: This is not about a piece of cloth. We see Iranians that are fighting for their lives, for their freedom. And not just women. These are women, men, children and everything in between. They’re fighting for a life without restraint of an abusive regime. And so for anyone who has, has rallied behind, you know, the Persian community, I think that it is wonderful. I hope that that allyship for and in support of women continues when we see women whose rights are being challenged, you know, whether it’s women’s rights in the US, women’s rights in, in France, women’s rights in Sweden, recently, with the ban of the burqa. There’s women whose right to wear hijab, or their choice in wearing hijab, being challenged in different parts of the world. And so I hope that this just encourages us to continue to fight for women’s rights.
From Doha Debates and Foreign Policy, this is The Long Game, a podcast about the power of sports to change the world. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
And I’m executive producer Karen Given. At first glance, the protests in Iran might not seem like a sports story. But in the lead-up to the Qatar World Cup, there were calls to bar Iran from the tournament altogether over the government’s treatment of women. Women in Iran have more rights than women in a place like Afghanistan. They have access to education. They can vote. They can be elected to parliament. But they can’t choose whether or not to wear the hijab. And until recently, they couldn’t attend sporting events in person. That’s how sports and women’s rights came to be intertwined in Iran.
I grew up in a very small city in, like, northeast of Iran, so far away from the capital. But even there, all of the children, they were just crazy about soccer. No matter whether they were, like, boys or girls.
KAREN: This is Soodi Milanlouei.
SOODI MILANLOUEI: So it’s Soodabeh, but I go by Soodi. So in the US, everyone calls me Soodi, like at work or, before that, out of school. Just call me Soodi.
KAREN: Soodi has loved soccer since she was a kid. She watched it on TV and says she was mesmerized by the beauty of the game.
SOODI: So I was like, “OK, I want to play soccer.” But the thing was that out of school, we couldn’t play soccer or even, like, form teams because soccer, quote unquote, was considered a “man’s sort of sport.” So I couldn’t do that. So I was like, “OK, I can go to the stadium and watch soccer games.” And then I realized that women in Iran, they cannot enter a stadium, they are banned from it.
KAREN: But on TV, Soodi could watch international matches. And as she scanned the faces in the stands, she saw men and women sitting next to each other, watching and cheering.
SOODI: And I was like, “Why is it not possible here in Iran?” My teenage brain had a hard time to understand it; how could that possible—how half of the population can be banned from doing so. As I was just growing up, I just realized that this is not the only way of discrimination against women in Iran. It basically covers all different aspects of, simply, life.
KAREN: Soodi knew of other women; women who dressed up like boys to sneak into stadiums.
KAREN: Did you ever consider dressing up like a boy to get in?
SOODI: I am ashamed to say that, no, I was too afraid, because of all the stories that I’ve heard about it. I wasn’t just brave enough to do so.
KAREN: Soodi’s been in the US for eight years now, living in Boston, but she still hasn’t seen a game in person. Her team is Manchester United, and they don’t come to the States very often. Soodi says she usually spends her free time watching soccer, reading about soccer and even writing about soccer. She’s the editor-in-chief of a Persian online magazine called Student of the Game.
SOODI: Which covers the soccer world from a tactical, historical and societal lens.
KAREN: But lately, she’s been watching, reading and writing about something else: the protests going on back home.
SOODI: It breaks my heart that I’m not there to just fight with them shoulder to shoulder. My own family, they are protesting in Iran. And every day I’m afraid for their safety and also any other Iranians who are basically fighting for the same things that I also value. Even though that I’m not there with them, but here, I’m just doing everything that I can to raise their voice and raise awareness and help them in whatever way that I can.
KAREN: I found Soodi on Twitter where she’s been doing just that. I tweeted at her and told her that I was working on a podcast episode about the connections between sports and the protests in Iran. She wrote back almost immediately. Quote: “As you know, in Iran, similar to the rest of the world, sports are not separate from politics. And understanding how that plays out in the context of the protests is quite important.”
Long before the death of Mahsa Amini, Soodi had already been thinking about the connections between sports and politics. Soodi’s online magazine, Student of the Game, asks the big questions. Like: Why do we have a World Cup in the first place?
SOODI: So this was Jules Rimet’s dream many years ago when he thought that, OK, all the countries can come together, play soccer, and this could be a showcase of unity, of inclusiveness, right?
KAREN: Jules Rimet was the longest serving president of FIFA. He established the World Cup in 1930 as a way to bring the world together in the wake of World War I. Ahead of this World Cup, Soodi and her fellow contributors decided to produce a podcast series called Jules Rimet’s Dream to look at previous World Cups through a political and societal lens. They paused the series once the protests in Iran began, but still, the project gave Soodi perspective on times athletes have used the World Cup to take a stand against injustice.
SOODI: These are the things that can remain in history and raise awareness and basically attract more reaction to human rights violations.
KAREN: But I asked Soodi to give me an example of the opposite, of a government using the World Cup as a tool of propaganda. And it didn’t take her long to come up with one.
SOODI: I was a kid. I was like eight years old.
KAREN: It was June 21st, 1998. The World Cup was being held in France, and for the first time, the Republic of Iran was scheduled to play against the United States of America.
SOODI: We were excited about it, you know, because they were telling us out of school that Americans are—are these like, you know, just deceitful people, that you shouldn’t trust them. So this is, like, how they raise you. But then for us, it was exciting. We were like, “OK, we can see them firsthand on TV.” And to us they were, like—they’re good athletes. They are normal people.
KAREN: The game was competitive. Both teams played well, and Iran came out on top, two to one.
SOODI: People were happy, you know? But people were happy because we had a chance to play with the Americans without any conflict or fighting or anything. We can play sports with them and be normal. So there were excitement, and it was in the context of the World Cup, so winning is important no matter whether it’s US or any other country. But at the same time, the TV was just full of the propaganda. The regime tried to advertise that as a victory for the entire country of Iran versus the entire country of the US, like, the clashes of ideologies or politics.
KAREN: The government tried, and for the most part failed, to control the narrative of that World Cup win. And that game? It marked the start of something, because as the Iranian national team was becoming more popular, soccer was becoming a battleground for the fight for women’s rights.
Sports really, in the early 2000s, became a venue where a lot of exciting stuff was happening.
KAREN: This is Niki Akhavan. She’s an associate professor and chair of the Department of Media and Communications Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.
NIKI AKHAVAN: That era, in terms of social media—the, the fights weren’t happening on Twitter, they were happening in the blogosphere. The Iranian blogosphere was very rich. It was very diverse. And at that moment, in the early 2000s, Persian was the third most written language on the blogosphere. And there were many English blogs as well, writing about Iran stuff. So Iranians writing in English, I, I was one of them.
KAREN: Many news reports suggest that women have been banned from stadiums since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But Niki says the ban actually was put in place a couple years later, in 1981.
NIKI: There were all these restrictions early on, you know, in the post-revolutionary fervor outlawing and banning all kinds of other activities. And there was a lot of debate about sports in particular. It wasn’t until 1987 that sports broadcasting was officially sort of approved for the state-run television. So I think on the state side, there’s also a recognition of—of sports as this double-edged sword that could maybe calm and maybe be a pressure release valve for young people in particular. But it also has this power to unite people in ways that can pose a threat to the state.
KAREN: Women had always pushed back against the stadium ban. But in the early 2000s, with soccer fandom on the rise and the Persian blogosphere in full swing, things started to get serious.
NIKI: So women were going to the stadium. They were posting about their own experiences. They were covering cases of other women gathering outside of stadiums. So you got that loop going where somebody’s writing about it, bringing attention to it, women are going by the stadium to protest, photos are being taken, then posted, and that starts its own movement, essentially, where more and more people become aware of what’s happening. And it completely yanks the narrative away from the state.
KAREN: But almost from the start there was pushback. With all of the things women should be fighting for, why were they fighting for the right to enter a sports stadium? Weren’t there other fights that were more important?
NIKI: If you read some of the interviews from women who were active in this period or who’ve written about this period, some will acknowledge, look, maybe this wasn’t my biggest priority in life, but this is a good opportunity to bring attention to what else is going on. And then we can build on this.
KAREN: Niki says stadium attendance is a good battleground for a bunch of reasons. First, it shouldn’t be controversial. Most people around the world can agree, barring half your population from the communal joy of watching a sporting event isn’t a good look. But also, Niki says, it’s visible. Sporting events are seen around the world. They’re on TV. And if you’ve been excluded from public spaces, a sporting event is a great place to make yourself seen. But most importantly, Niki says, the stadium issue became an issue because women in Iran really do love sports.
NIKI: Despite all of the restrictions that they face, they are super active both as athletes and as audiences. So it’s not like an external made-up thing that somebody came up with, like, “Oh, hey, it would be brilliant to use the stadium issue because, look, it draws in international organizations. It draws in international press.” No, there actually are women and girls who are great lovers of sports.
KAREN: A great way to see this play out, Niki says, is in the 2006 movie by Iranian director Jafar Panahi. The movie follows a fictionalized group of women as they dress up like boys and try to sneak into a soccer stadium.
NIKI: And, and the title is Offside. So, of course, double entendre there, because they are off on the sidelines.
KAREN: One by one, the women are caught and brought into a room inside the stadium where they can’t see or hear the game. That’s where they find an ally.
NIKI: This reluctant, kind of—I don’t know if he’s a soldier, I think he might be a soldier—who’s working there, some other kid who’s working there has to corral the girls. And then this camaraderie forms between the boys who are detaining the girls. And so they’re reporting the games to them. And, and you see the unifying power of sport, the joy of sport and the ridiculousness of this exclusion of girls.
KAREN: The filmmakers asked for and received all the necessary permissions and permits to film the movie inside a stadium in Iran. But then, after the movie was made, the Iranian government withdrew their approval.
NIKI: I don’t know at which moment censors decided—some point in post-production, maybe initial screenings—that this was not something that was going to be allowed to screen in Iran. So the film, fully following all the right rules, made in Iran, but then banned in Iran—this is not the first film that this has happened to. It’s one of the frustrations but also contradictions of filmmaking in Iran. But that’s, that’s a whole other story. And so then after this happened, despite or maybe because of the fact that the film was banned, it then was received very well internationally. Because any time you censor a film, then audiences want to know, “Well, there must be something really good in this film that this oppressive government is censoring it.” So the film not only is capturing discriminatory and repressive practices, it’s actually itself a symbol of that.
IBTIHAJ: You’re listening to The Long Game from Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad.
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IBTIHAJ: And now back to our story.
KAREN: Offside was released in 2006, but by March of 2019, nothing had changed. Women still weren’t allowed in stadiums in Iran, and they were still dressing up like boys to try to sneak in. 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari was one of those women.
NIKI: So this is one of the saddest incidents where the exclusion of women from stadium, it, it has really dire effects—I mean fatal effects, because she set herself on fire.
KAREN: Sahar was attempting to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium when she was stopped by security guards and arrested.
NIKI: And the exact story, the exact steps of how she came to be so upset to set herself on fire is not very clear. One of the reasons it’s not clear is because the Iranian state tried to step in to control the narrative. They tried to get her dad to say that she was mentally ill. Whatever the actual case is, it’s very clear that she would not have set herself on fire if this restriction had not been in place. It was clearly in response to this exclusion.
KAREN: Soon, reports of Sahar’s death were swirling around the internet, with activists, athletes and fans calling for FIFA to punish Iran for the death of the woman who had been dubbed “The Blue Girl.”
NIKI: She was called “The Blue Girl,” as you mentioned, because her favorite team, Esteghlal, which is the local team.
KAREN: FIFA, which had been ignoring calls to action for years, suddenly found those calls to be much harder to ignore.
NIKI: The line to FIFA had been opened before then, asking FIFA to, to step in and force the Iranian government to allow women at the stadium. That had already been in place. But Khodayari’s case did push the issue into international view in a—in a much more intense way. I remember at the time there were so many international athletes, soccer athletes, who were tweeting on her behalf, using her case to say that soccer is, you know—the beautiful game is for everybody. So I certainly think that it contributed, maybe getting FIFA to move a little faster.
KAREN: FIFA demanded that Iran allow women free access to games and that the country make tickets available in numbers based on demand. Iran responded by allowing a limited number of women in to see a couple of national team matches and one league game.
NIKI: Both the national games that they were allowed to attend and, this summer, the Esteghlal game that allowed women in, they—there were placards, women holding up placards remembering The Blue Girl, saying “Blue Girl forever.” And it was very, very moving. So she has become a symbol whose name is not forgotten.
KAREN: The moment was historic. But Soodi Milanlouei was not swayed.
SOODI: Few numbers of women, yes, they were allowed to the stadium, but it was only because FIFA has threatened them with punishment. There was a game in Mashhad. They were forced to sell tickets. So many women, they bought tickets. But when they basically appeared, they didn’t let them in and they started beating them up. So it’s just all a show.
KAREN: In September, when Mahsa Amini was killed in custody for improperly wearing her hijab, people were reminded of Sahar Khodayari and all the other young women who have died while standing up to this government. People took to the street. They took to Twitter and Instagram. And some of the loudest voices joining the fight were athletes.
I think what makes this, you know, a unique story is this is not just one athlete.
KAREN: That’s Sanya Mansoor. She’s a journalist at Time magazine, and she’s been covering the recent unrest in Iran.
SANYA MANSOOR: I think one of the most well-known people who has been speaking out in protests is former Iran soccer captain Ali Karimi.
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Ali Karimi with a first mid-corner before a wonderfully worked move.
KAREN: Karimi is sometimes called “the Asian Maradona.” Other people call him “the Magician.” Karimi has long been critical of the Iranian state. But after the death of Mahsa Amini, Karimi became even more vocal, signaling his support of the protests over social media.
SANYA: There have been news reports that his friends have alleged that the government tried to kidnap him after supporting these protests. Tehran authorities had issued an arrest warrant for him. And he himself had tweeted earlier on that he and his family have been threatened since speaking up for protesters.
KAREN: According to reports, Karimi fled to Dubai, but he’s been charged in absentia with assembly and collusion with the intention of acting against national security. When athletes started speaking up—and facing consequences for doing so—Sanya reached out to a number of former Iranian athletes, now all living in self-exile, to talk about the pressures athletes face to stay silent.
SANYA: Especially with sportspeople, they’re in this unique situation in which they’re—in some ways, they’re held up and embraced by the government. Right? They’re kind of a source of pride. But I think there’s also this dichotomy here in which you’re not allowed to critique your country in some way or, you know, you have to wear the hijab a certain way or you have to have a particular sexuality in order to compete in this way. So I think that’s what made this a sports story, too, that, yes, there are larger questions here about gender and equality, but there are actually very specific things that affect athletes and have affected many athletes, not just now, but over, you know, the last few decades.
KAREN: I interviewed three women for this story: Soodi Milanlouei, Niki Akhavan and Sanya Mansoor, and they all mentioned one athlete in particular. Here’s Soodi.
SOODI: There were many instances that happened over the past couple of weeks, all of them brave, inspiring. But one of them, which has stood out the most to me, was Elnaz Rekabi.
KAREN: And Niki.
NIKI: Elnaz Rekabi, who—she was at a climbing tournament, and she climbed without her hijab.
KAREN: And Sanya.
SANYA: Yeah. So let me give you a little bit of background about Elnaz Rekabi. This first really emerged in the news when people saw pictures.
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An Iranian athlete competed without her hijab in Seoul this past Sunday…
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Videos of her climbing without a headscarf went viral…
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When footage of her doing that spread, many believed she was supporting protests back home.
SANYA: I think it was difficult, because she didn’t necessarily make a statement at the time. She didn’t really say anything, but it seemed to be this unsaid understanding. So as the story developed, there was concern, over a brief period of time, where she appeared to be missing. So her friends had told different news outlets that they were having trouble contacting her.
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BBC Persian is reporting Rekabi’s mobile and passport had been confiscated by Iranian officials, and the website Iran Wire is alleging that Elnaz Rekabi will be transferred to Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison once she lands…
SANYA: Shortly afterwards, there was an Instagram post that emerged…
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…In which she apologizes for any concern and insisted that her bare-headed appearance had been unintentional.
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She chalked it up to poor scheduling and being called to climb unpredictably.
SANYA: I hesitate to, like, speculate. No one—no one could tell me this is exactly what happened to Elnaz Rekabi. But I think what we do know, based on the experience of some of these Iranian athletes living in self-exile, is that government can turn the pressure up on individuals and athletes when they decide to speak out.
NIKI: Everybody suspected that this was a, a forced statement.
KAREN: This is Niki again.
NIKI: And when she returned to the country, she was greeted at the airport by crowds who came just to support what she had done.
[AUDIO FOOTAGE OF CROWD CHANTING “ELNAZ! ELNAZ! ELNAZ!”]
NIKI: The airport is quite a ways away from, from town. So the fact that people made the effort to go out and receive this athlete—it really shows the dedication and the support for this kind of action.
KAREN: And it appears that Elnaz Rekabi’s protest, intentional or not, has inspired other female athletes in Iran.
NIKI: Yesterday there was a ceremony for archery championships in Tehran, and one of the women who was on the—what’s it called—the platform where you receive your medals? Her name is Parmida Ghasemi. She’s actually on the national archery team as well. She took off her hijab during the medal ceremonies. And this is inside Iran. It’s just so brave and so wonderful. And in the footage that’s circulating of her taking off her hijab in solidarity with the protesters, you can hear people from the crowd cheering and encouraging her at the moment that she does that.
[AUDIO FOOTAGE OF CLAPPING AND CHEERING CROWD]
KAREN: But like Rekabi, Parmida Ghasemi soon took to Instagram to set the record straight. Her hijab had fallen off due to high winds. Neither she nor her family had ever had any problem with the hijab.
SOODI: That’s the same story that we see just over and over and over.
KAREN: This is Soodi.
SOODI: We are dealing with a regime which is OK with showing forced, sort of, confession about these situations, even though that everyone knows that they are fake. As long as they show it on TV, they are happy with it. So if you look into, like, the Persian Twitter, you can see that people are now encouraging each other not to share those forced interviews and confession, because we know that they are all lies. And we just—we don’t want to add to that propaganda and just help the regime to spread fear among people.
KAREN: This was the context heading into this World Cup. Just weeks before the games were set to begin, the president of FIFA sent a letter to teams asking them to, quote, “Let football take center stage.” Iranian fans like Soodi are calling on their team to ignore that request. Well, maybe I should rephrase that, because Soodi won’t be rooting for Iran this World Cup. She’s put her support behind England.
SOODI: This is not my team, because I cannot freely go to the stadium and watch them and support them. They could have done things, but they haven’t. They could have been our voice. They have power. They have popularity. People are supporting them. So they could have fought for us. But they haven’t. And it was very disappointing. And as long as this is the case, as long as they don’t care about half of the population, this team is not my team.
KAREN: Soodi Milanlouei and Niki Akhavan don’t agree on everything. Soodi thinks that allowing women into stadiums was all for show. Niki sees it as a small victory; limited, but still a victory. Soodi supported the calls for Iran to be banned from the Qatar World Cup. Niki felt like a ban would have only benefited the Iranian state, who would have said that it was more proof that the world doesn’t care about the Iranian people. But there’s one thing Soodi and Nkki absolutely agree on: the fact that this World Cup will provide the opportunity to keep the issue alive.
NIKI: I’m so heartened by the fact that two months into the protest in Iran, there is still worldwide attention to them. You know, attention spans are so low. There’s so much else that’s going on. So I’m heartened by that. And I think that the World Cup will offer another opportunity.
SOODI: Any solidarity shown during the World Cup would reach the entire world. So that’s why there is, like, this huge expectation among Iranians from the national team to use the World Cup opportunity to be our voice and show the world that things are not normal in Iran.
KAREN: So what will those opportunities look like? Some have suggested that World Cup crowds should chant Mahsa Amini’s name at the 22nd minute of every game. She was 22 years old when she was killed. Others have called for players on the field to get involved, maybe by pantomiming the cutting of hair to celebrate a goal, like beach soccer player Saeed Piramoon did in the Emirates Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup Final in early November. Whatever happens at these games, Soodi Milanlouei says Iranians will be watching.
SOODI: Right now, there is day-by-day battle on the streets, right? You may have, like, fear of, you know, getting jailed or getting killed. When they see the people around the world, they have heard their voice, they can see that what they are doing is not for nothing. It means something, and people around the world support them. It basically, you know, helps them fight harder and get closer to what they want, which is freedom.
IBTIHAJ: That’s it for this episode of The Long Game. I’m your host, Ibtihaj Muhammad. The Long Game is a co-production of Doha Debates and Foreign Policy. Our executive producer is Karen Given.
KAREN: We had help from Dan Ephron, Rob Sachs, Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. Make sure to follow us on Apple or your favorite podcast app. And please leave us a review.
IBTIHAJ: To learn more, subscribe to Foreign Policy, a global magazine of news and ideas. Or visit Doha Debates, a production of Qatar Foundation. Next week on the podcast…
KAREN: Mohamed Amine Zariat was 21 years old when he stumbled upon his life’s purpose. He founded TIBU, an organization that uses basketball to drive social and economic change in Morocco. Over the past decade, TIBU has grown a bit, expanding into all of North Africa. And it has expanded beyond basketball, too.
MOHAMED AMINE ZARIAT:
Sports is magic. It can be football, it can be fencing, it can be baseball, it can be swimming. We need only space, a ball, to change the life of thousands of kids.
IBTIHAJ: That’s next week on The Long Game.