Segregate score

Female football fans in Iran have been denied their kicks by the religious authorities, inspiring, as Simon Creasey explains, a film by a director acclaimed elsewhere but whose work is unseen at home

In March this year security forces stopped 50 women attempting to enter Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) stadium to watch a football match between Iran and Costa Rica. Some of the women were beaten – one had her leg broken – and they were eventually ferried away in a bus escorted by the military.

Last year, a girl disguised as a boy had tried to enter the same stadium to watch a World Cup qualifier against Bahrain. She was discovered and held for the duration of the match along with some other street-smart female fans. This incident inspired award-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi to make his latest film, Offside.

The comedy, which is shot in a documentary style and uses a non-professional cast, highlights Iran’s strict segregation policies and the growing rebellion of the country’s young women, who are unwilling to bow to such strictures.

Panahi says that the idea had been bubbling away for years. When Iran beat Australia to qualify for the 1998 World Cup the players were given a heroes’ welcome on their return and special dispensation was granted to allow 5,000 women to join in the celebrations. This spurred a lot of debate within Iran as to why women were banned from sports stadiums in the first place. Then a couple of years ago Panahi wanted to go to watch his local football side train. His daughter begged to go with him so Panahi set out with his entire family – that way if his daughter was refused entry his wife could take her back home.

“We went to the stadium and as I expected my daughter was refused entry,” says Panahi. “I told her to go home with her mother but she found another way of getting into the stalls and to my surprise she joined me. This event also inspired my thoughts about the film, which I had tucked away in a corner of my mind. When I realised Iran once again had a chance at playing in the World Cup I decided the time was right to do this film.”

He ran into numerous difficulties during the making of the film – at one point the military demanded to see rushes, but Panahi refused to hand them over and ended up shooting the final scenes outside the military zone in Tehran.

While no law formally bans women from stadiums, hard-line government officials and religious leaders had deemed it un-Islamic for women to attend men’s sporting events, since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

However, determined women have found many ways of getting round the ban, one of the most common being to dress as men. During a match between Iran and Japan in March 2005, supporters were trampled as they tried to escape the military. Seven people died, but the press published photos of only six of the dead. There were rumours that the seventh victim was a girl and, while there is no concrete evidence backing these claims, it later emerged that one of the injured supporters was a girl disguised as a boy.

Incidents such as this led to a growing women’s protest movement and as a result in April this year the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced that women would be allowed to attend matches from the start of the new season in specially created areas for women and families. The president hoped that the presence of women in public venues would help bring “morality and chastity” to the occasions. One day after his announcement conservative Shiite mullahs criticised the decision and one religious leader issued a fatwa against the presence of women in stadiums.

It’s still unclear whether or not the president will stand by his original decision. What’s also unclear is when the Iranian people will be able to see Offside because, like Panahi’s other films, it hasn’t been cleared for release. “Every year I fill out the necessary applications but none of my films has been released in Iran. Perhaps because there is humour in this film it stands a chance of being released later this year,” hopes Panahi.

From WSC 235 September 2006. What was happening this month