The globe is gripped by World Cup fever. The festival of football is in full swing. And one of the surprise packages of the tournament so far, has been Iran. Given no chance in a group including Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and 2010 champions Spain, they so nearly pulled off the impossible. But for the narrowest of misses by Mehdi Taremi in the dying seconds of their final game against Portugal, Iran would have achieved the unthinkable. Although they were ultimately defeated, players such as goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand have gone from nobodies to household names.
Suffice to say that Iran’s footballers won plenty of admirers the world over. And rightly so. Fox Sports waxed lyrical over the “indomitable” team and their “cavalier, free-flowing attacking football.” They were unquestionably a joy to watch. The Independent made the almost indisputable claim that as a footballing nation, Iran now “deserve respect.”
And it wasn’t just the performances of ‘Team Melli’ on the pitch which caught the eye. There were admirers too for the loud, passionate Iranian fans who had made the journey to Russia. Not only were they vocal, but demonstrated that Iran really is a country that takes its football seriously. So much so, that many of them camped outside the hotel where the Portugal team were staying, making as much noise as possible to disrupt and unsettle their opponents.
In fact, at first glance, the billions of viewers across the world could have looked at the Iranian supporters and be fooled into thinking that their country is an exciting, modern, forward-thinking state just like so many others represented at the World Cup. However, the Iranian crowd in Russia included one feature unthinkable in such a setting in Iran itself – Women.
If any reminder were required over the Iranian reality, this is it. Despite the glamour and glitz of the World Cup, Iran remains a brutal and discriminatory theocracy, where women are most definitely second-class citizens. Consequently, the football stadium is a no-go area for women – They are banned from watching the world’s most popular sport in a live setting. But make no mistake, there are plenty of women in Iran who would do almost anything to watch a match in person. So much so, that there are many cases of women disguising themselves as men in order to gain access to football stadiums. Some have been arrested for the simple ‘crime’ of watching football.
For many of the Iranian women in the crowd in Russia, their attendance was a once in a lifetime opportunity – Not just because it was a rare chance to watch their heroes at a World Cup. But because for many, it was the first time they had ever attended a football match. Absurdly, they had to travel abroad in order to do so. Tellingly, one of those who made it to Russia commented, “I didn’t really know how to cheer, because I’ve never been inside a stadium.”
And many of those who made the journey to Russia, used an assumed name when asked by the media, in fear of the consequences back home. For those brave enough to not only use their real name, but to display the hashtag #NoBan4Women, the result was harassment by the authorities before attending Iran’s match against Spain. Such is the price of freedom in Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei was quick to praise the national team’s “magnificent” performances at the World Cup. However, Tehran’s leaders were clearly keen to ensure that the regime’s blatant gender discrimination was not exposed to the world.
But the reality must be laid bare for all to see. Credit to the likes of ESPN and the Guardian, who used the World Cup as an opportunity to cover the struggle of Iranian women to enter football stadiums. But much of the media appeared too bewitched by the action on the pitch, to consider the wider picture.
Perhaps now that the Iranian team has returned home, the World Cup can be the catalyst for broader reflection. Because the struggle of Iranian women does not end at football. For a start, Iranian women are denied the most basic of rights, such as deciding what to wear, forcibly made to wear a hijab in public. Those who are brave enough to defy these dictates often pay a harsh price – Arrest and detention. They are taking an incredible public stand for the kind of gender equality which is not only taken for granted in the West, but is fundamental to Western civilization.
So while the global media continues to shower praise on the Iranian football team for its exploits in Russia, the time has come to shine the spotlight on the women who demand equality in Iran – In the football stadium, in the streets and in so many other corners of Iranian society. The country will only change when they are acknowledged as Iranian heroes, in the same way as the country’s footballers.