Iranian women defiant protest at Asian Cup

iran women at asian cup 2015

The Iran fans at the Asian Cup have been a revelation. At the last census there was 34,454 Iranian-born people living in Australia, and for Iran’s opening match against Bahrain in Melbourne, the organisers forecasted just 5,000 spectators. Incredibly, more than 17,000 people turned up, the vast majority drawn from the Iranian diaspora. A week later in Sydney, more than 22,000 people saw Team Melli defeat Qatar, while in Brisbane 11,000 people showed up to see the team qualify for the quarter-finals. In Canberra, families piled into buses, cars, trains and planes to cheer on Team Melli against an old rival Iraq. In a nailbiting, end-to-end match that went to a penalty shoot-out, Iran were eliminated.

The tournament organisers may have underestimated the passion of the Iran fans, but even for Iranians like Talieh the turnout has been overwhelming. Indeed the colour and noise of the Iranians has been a defining feature of the group stage – after the match in Sydney, Iran striker Ashkan Dejagah praised the supporters by saying “it was like playing in Tehran”.

Except, of course, for the women. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the clergy has gradually placed harsh restrictions on females attending sporting matches involving men. The cruel and unusual ruling has been the subject of the famous film, Offside, and, as Kian* told me, a major point of contention for the diaspora community in Australia.

Kian and several other activists have been working quietly on protest banners for the past few months, which they smuggled in and unveiled at the quarter-final in Canberra. On the 65th minute mark, a banner carrying the face of Ghoncheh Ghavami was briefly unveiled in the Gregan-Larkham Stand. Ghavami is a young British-Iranian woman who was placed in prison for trying to attend a volleyball match in 2014. A second banner was also planned to be unfurled inside the stadium, but in the excitement Kian simply couldn’t find the time. In English, it read “Thanks for censoring us!” and in Farsi below “Don’t be tired!”

“This is a golden opportunity for the Iranian community to protest, to express themselves, to put pressure on the government,” says Kian. Although he has lived in Sydney since 1998, Kian decided not to make the protest at the group matches in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. It’s not his fellow spectators that Kian is hoping to reach – it’s for his countrymen back home in Iran. “The state-run TV channels are experts at hiding the footage,” Kian says before the quarter-final. “If you look at the footage you cannot recognise it. They have done it for 30 years. But the government cannot censor this, when the camera goes to the banner they can’t miss it.”

The political is personal for Kian, who grew up watching football before the revolution in Iran. He was in Tehran as a 12-year old for the opening of the Azadi Stadium at the 1974 Asian Games. “In those days, you couldn’t recognise any difference between women and men. My aunt was a fencing referee, and all people attended the stadium. I don’t remember any issues.”

iran women at asian cup 2015(1)The television, it seems, has become the medium of protest for women of the Iranian diaspora. Talieh explains that many of the women have dressed in a revealing manner in order to show Iranians back home their newfound freedom. At the game in Sydney, one woman in particular became popular on social media after posing in a midriff top with an Iranian flag that read “Alireza marry me” in English. Sanaz likes the photo – her favourite player is also Alireza Haghighi. “He’s very handsome,” she laughs.

But it’s not just the women who are using football to express themselves. Inside the stadium, there has been a vast array of Iranian political messages. At the game in Sydney, I sat behind a group wearing white shirts bearing the face of Habib Khabiri, a prominent Iranian footballer who was executed by the regime in 1984. Several different versions of the Iranian flag have been on show – some wave the official flag with the symbol of Allah, others have the lion and the sun which is associated with the Shah. Then there are those with ‘Greater Persia’, ‘Persian Gulf’ or simply ‘Iran’ written in the middle, while a few have left the middle completely blank.

In Sydney, Talieh sat behind a young boy and his father waving an Iraqi flag in support of Iran. Nearby, an Iranian woman in her 40s was waving an Iran flag with a big black cross drawn over the symbol of Allah. Talieh watched in amazement as the woman tore out the symbol of Allah with her teeth, leaving an ugly, gaping hole in the middle. “It was so strange seeing an Iraqi child with an Iraq flag cheering for the Iranian team, while an Iranian woman was struggling with her own flag. It’s like a sickness.”

Such is the nature of Iranian politics. Ask one question to five Iranians, and you’ll likely get six different opinions. Speak to any of the journalists working for Iranian community press in Australia, and they’ll tell you the immense difficulty in reporting neutrally for a politically aware and active audience.

Inside the stadium, Majid Varess, a veteran Iranian journalist reporting for Voice of America, believes the supporters need to be raising the issue of women’s rights. “I’d like to see that in Iran,” he says when I ask him if he was pleased to see women inside the stadium. “Here is free, it’s not a big deal. It’s not just us – it’s the Iraqis, the Koreans, the Japanese. I’m not making a big deal out of it.”

iran women at asian cup 2015(2)Sitting with Majid in the press box, he looks down disdainfully at the two Iranian commentators calling the game for state television. “That was my job,” he says. For speaking out against the regime, Majid has made some enemies. “I was talking about it, and I got into problems. But I am just one person doing what I think is good for my country. When women cannot go to the stadium this is not political, this is social. This is human rights. This has nothing to do with politics. This is an insult to human beings I think. I hope my countrymen look at the issues like that – not just react to things when it happens to them personally.”

Despite Team Melli’s dramatic exit, football might be a way of keeping the Iranians in Australia together. Sanaz is ready to go to an A-League game, while in Sydney an Iranian-Australian football association has been recently established by one of the Asian Cup community ambassadors. Both men and women will be encouraged to become involved. For Talieh, who says the Asian Cup has given Iranians “a sense of belonging” in Australia, the football association will become part of the calendar of community events like the monthly Shabe Shadi (“night of joy”), the weekly Iranian literature club, and Iranian Halloween. “We hope, you know, we never lose our hope,” she says. “Outside of Iran, anything is possible.”

* not their real names



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