Sport in Iran

'100% yes' to cross the line

As part of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information’s Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting programme, 14 journalism students from Nanyang Technological University were in Iran last year to uncover a different side of the Middle East nation. The stories and photographs on these two pages are some of their work.

Iranian women football fans are contesting stadium ban but there has been little progress

Being headstrong was always Hanieh's most identifiable trait.

While other girls played with stray dogs, she preferred to play street football with boys. While her family wanted her to take up teaching, she decided to study architecture.

So when the avid football fan, who declined to give her full name, decided to watch a football match at a stadium, nothing was going to stop her - even if it meant flouting the country's religious rules.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending men's games as the rowdy atmosphere is deemed unsuitable for them.

Girls are not allowed in once they start wearing the hijab - a head-covering veil worn as a symbol of modesty - typically when they hit puberty.

Hanieh, who has supported the Persepolis Football Club since she was four, was not content with watching her sporting heroes on television. In May, she disguised herself as a man to sneak into Teheran's Azadi Stadium for Persepolis' match against Rahahan.

"It is terrible that men can watch games at stadiums but women can't. It's my right to watch my favourite team, it doesn't matter that others don't like it," the 21-year-old said.

To conceal her gender, Hanieh donned seven layers of T-shirts and trousers in the park toilet next to the stadium. She then painted her face red - the representative colour of her beloved team - and wore a cap to hide her hair.

Using a friend's brother's identification card, she bought a ticket at the stadium.

The hardest part was maintaining her composure in front of policemen in the stadium. She tried to "act like a boy" as she headed to her seat.

She had planned to keep quiet so as not to let her voice attract unwanted attention, yet her emotions exploded when her team scored the opening goal.

Hanieh's sudden outburst of cheers led to stares from men sitting around her who had realised there was a girl among them.

"At first they laughed about it, but when other spectators started speaking rudely, those people asked them not to curse because there is a lady," she recalled.

"This was unbelievable for me, because I had heard that those who go to the stadium are not polite and that it is not good for women to go there. But these gentlemen protected me like I was their sister."

All her initial fears melted away. She said: "Although I was terrified at first, I really enjoyed the match after. It felt like I wanted to fly."

Hanieh then posted a picture of herself on her personal Instagram account (@shakiba_hni) to show her friends, who had scoffed at her claims that she would watch a match.

She went to her second match in September, this time for the hotly contested derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal. Again, she piled on the apparel (five layers this time) and posted about being among 90,000 fans at the stadium, this time with a female friend - though she admitted she was afraid of implicating her companion.

From having a few hundred followers on Instagram before her first match, she currently has almost 19,000 - many of whom cheered her on.

"I was so happy to know of so many other women supporters. I really felt that there are so many other women who want to enter stadiums but can't, so it felt like I was representing them," said Hanieh.

According to women rights activist group OpenStadiums, there have been many cases of Iranian women dressing up like men to enter stadiums due to the ban, which extended to volleyball in 2012.

Also known as White Scarves, the group's members work anonymously for security purposes, and campaigns for female fans to enter stadiums through demonstrations and social media activities.

Despite being mocked by sceptics when they first formed in 2005, the group has steadily gained support through social media from foreign activist groups.

Some of these foreign supporters, both men and women, display banners or wear T-shirts at sports events to show their solidarity.

However, the White Scarves have yet to influence any change in the country's strict laws and the group lives under fear of arrest.

A representative said Iranian women sometimes watch sports matches from high vantage points like rooftops and hill slopes.

"We watched beach volleyball from a rooftop last winter," she said. "Some of us even sneaked into a stadium with Korean women to watch a game with them."

Despite an ironclad ruling on local women, the authorities appear to close an eye to foreign women watching live sports events.

Rare exceptions are sometimes made for family members of club officials and players.

At a second-tier league game between Baadraan Tehran and Naft Masjed Soleyman in September, Baadraan Tehran team manager Farshid Ghorbanian's female relative, who requested not to be named, was the only woman present at the Rah Ahan Stadium.

He explained that "the atmosphere is not fit for women", as raucous male fans chanted "hamleh" ("attack" in Farsi) and blared horns in the background.

His relative stayed seated quietly in the VIP box throughout, while male guests next to her cheered and gestured wildly.

Female journalists have been allowed into stadiums on occasion, though in 2014 they were ordered to leave the Azadi Stadium, which hosted World League volleyball matches.

In July, women were promised by the authorities that they could buy tickets to watch World League matches, but they were instead greeted with a "sold out" alert as soon as the online sale started.

Even players' family members with special accreditation were barred by security services from watching a game against the United States in June.

The struggles of Iranian female sports fans were the subject of filmmaker Jafar Panahi's 2006 film Offside, which depicts Iranian women disguising themselves to watch a national men's football game. It won the runner-up prize at the 2006 Berlin Film Festival.

At the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last year, Iranian volleyball fan Darya Safai held up a sign and wore a T-shirt that said "Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums", sparking worldwide debate over women's rights in Iran.

Safai, 35, is the founder and director of the activist group, "Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums".

There have, however, been cases of women prosecuted for repudiating the established restrictions. In 2014, British-Iranian fan Ghoncheh Ghavami spent five months in Teheran's Evin prison for protesting outside the Azadi Stadium after she was refused entry.

In May, a 15-year-old Iranian girl was arrested and threatened with death, after she had dressed up as a boy to watch the football season finale at the Azadi Stadium.

The fear of running foul of the law does not appear to deter fans like Hanieh.

Asked if she is planning another visit to the stadium, she replied: "One hundred per cent, yes."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2017, with the headline ''100% yes' to cross the line'. Print Edition | Subscribe