Iranian women stand united in protest and hope at Asian Cup

The noise and colour of Iranian fans at this Asian Cup have made watching Team Melli just like back at home in Tehran – except of course for the women

It was the unity of the Iranian fans, more than anything else, that shocked Talieh Akbari. Sitting in Stadium Australia in Sydney with her mother for Iran’s second group match against Qatar – their first time together at a football stadium – she was struck by the sheer outpouring of emotion. “In Iran, happiness is forbidden,” she says. “Iranian people inside Iran are not happy people, but watching the people’s happiness, that is unity.”

Talieh, 34, moved from Tehran to Australia four years ago. She is a programme producer for SBS Persian Radio and serves on the board of the Aknoon Iranian Community Centre in Hornsby. Her parents are on holidays from Iran, and so we meet in Crows Nest, where she drops them off at a drama performance at the Persian Morning Tea Programme. “It’s a very good programme, but it’s difficult to gather more than 30 people together,” she explains. “The Iranian community historically is very divided. I’ve been involved with community events for years, and always we have an audience problem and a volunteer problem.” The Asian Cup, she says, is the biggest show of togetherness amongst her community since she arrived in Australia.

As a woman Talieh is banned from attending football matches in Iran, and although she prefers watching the game on television, she was never going to miss such a rare opportunity to watch the national team in her adopted hometown. She says the ban on women in stadiums has made football like “forbidden fruit”, while her mother Parvaneh believes the match in Sydney was “the first and perhaps the last time I will see Iran play.”

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!”

Iran fans with their banner in support of Ghoncheh Ghavami

“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.”

Already the government censors have been hard at work, and the Iranian Football Federation has officially warned players about posing for selfies with women. “In some of the selfies that our players have taken with the fans we can see they appear next to people whose appearance we regard as being against our moral principles,” said IFF disciplinary member Ali Akbar Mohammadzadeh.

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.”

Talieh with her mother and father at the Iran game in Sydney

At 24, Kian’s friend Sanaz* only knows one Iran – the post-revolution Islamic Republic. I meet her outside Stadium Australia in Sydney before the second group match. Dressed in the red shirt of Team Melli, her dark brown hair is streaked with highlights and covered by a bright green leather cap. Her lips are painted bright red and she has the Iranian colours streaked like warpaint across her cheek. On her left wrist she wears three green, red and white bracelets which match her coloured fingernails. She is, like most of the Iranian fans, visually striking.

But Sanaz’s exuberant appearance disguises a lingering sadness and anxiety about her future. In 2012 she arrived in Australia after a hellish boat journey, and after being detained at Christmas Island she is now living in Melbourne. With a long, uncertain wait for permanent residency, Sanaz is unable to work or study until her visa is cleared. In Iran she was a law graduate and an accomplished volleyball player, but her decision to come to Australia was made with bad information. Sanaz has been trapped by the collision of theocratic authoritarianism, profiteering people smugglers and draconian immigration policies.

“I was just seeking a better life,” she says through Kian’s translation. “As a woman working in Iran, you see the satellite, you see the western countries and how the women have rights and have no restrictions. My major reason was to study language and then continue studying to get a law degree in Australia. I applied for a student visa, but it took so long I decided to get a boat.”

Iran fans with the banner that never saw the light of day inside Canberra Stadium

Sanaz’s journey was a “terrible experience” with no food or water for three days. “I was 99% sure I was going to die,” she says. The people smugglers told her if she came by boat her visa would be processed within six months, and after that she could study for free at university. Kian shakes his head at her naivety, but says that he can understand her situation. “There are 12 state-run TV channels in Iran, and when you hear back from Iranians living in Australia they only say the good things,” he admits. Nobody, of course, wants their family back home to worry about them.

The dehumanising effects of the refugee experience have left Sanaz with physical and emotional ailments. She says her eyesight has deteriorated because of the stress of the journey, and she fears getting back on a boat. “I took her on the ferry to Manly,” explains Kian. “She kept away from the window, and when I asked she said ‘I can’t look at the water’.” Sanaz smiles nervously and nods – “I understand English better than I speak it,” she says as way of confirmation.

It’s not, however, for a lack of trying. Arriving without a word of English, she has taught herself the language through movies and the internet. Although she was raised Muslim, becoming involved in a church group in Ringwood has also helped. With a voice recorder in front of her, she prefers to speak through Kian in Farsi, but as we sit together inside the stadium we chat more freely in English.

Australia, unfortunately, is not the welcoming country Sanaz was expecting. On Christmas Island she was forced to share a tent with 60 other people, while the amenities were spread thin among hundreds of people. “It was hell,” she says, breaking into nervous laughter. “I thought to myself this was a bad decision, but I couldn’t do anything. I just had to go forward. Because I have passed many problems and dangers, it’s worth it to stay and find what’s going to be ahead in the next couple of years. If I go back to Iran I have to start from the beginning or worse.”

But while her situation appears desperate, there are freedoms which she appreciates. “It is not a small thing, it’s very important,” she says when I ask her about the freedom to not have to wear a hijab. She describes having to don the hijab and a long dress to play volleyball in the national championships in Tehran as “very difficult and hot”. And since Iran have been playing in the Asian Cup in her adopted country, she has become an avid football fan.

“Because there are restrictions in Iran, this is the only time I can go to the stadium as a woman. It’s so amazing and I am so excited. It’s a very, very good feeling to be here. Before I thought that football was just for men, I’m thinking that this was the main reason why I wasn’t a football fan in Iran – because it’s just for men.”

Before Iran’s opening match against Bahrain in Melbourne, Sanaz excitedly called her girlfriends and parents in Iran. “They’re all jealous of me because I can go to the game. I called my father and said ‘look at the TV, you’re going to see me’.”

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.

E05But 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.

Despite her reformist political views, Talieh believes football should be free of politics. “Here is a free country, not like Iran,” she says. “In Iran you cannot have peaceful protest, but here you can. A football match is not a proper time or place.”

In Melbourne for Iran’s match against Bahrain, I walked to the stadium with an Iranian woman, perhaps in her 40s. When I asked her about women not being able to watch matches in Iran, she became agitated. “American lies!” she said dismissively, “be careful these people aren’t being paid to tell you lies and make Iranians look bad.”

 Iran fans at Marconi Stadium for a community tournament in Sydney

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.”

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.”

Kian agrees, and this is why he has decided to take matters into his own hands. As a younger man he loved going to games in Iran even though it was men only. He describes how Iranian fans would train pigeons to fly around the stadium, and do the Mexican wave as the birds passed. “The first time I saw this trick it worked so well that I couldn’t stop laughing. It was so much fun. I don’t think its dangerous. But women are part of the people and half the population. They have the right to be there too.”

Sanaz appreciates the banner and Kian’s gesture of support, although she worries about the implications for him and the others if they get caught. Adapting to life in Australia has been difficult for her. A few friends, mostly from her time spent at Christmas Island, give her some sense of community, but hers is still a lonely existence. “I grew up in a big family with lots of connections and lots of cousins and friends,” she says. “We had a party every single week, so it was a struggle to come here with no friends and no English. It is very important to be in contact with the Iranians as a transit point.”

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.”