By Payam Yunesipour
March 11, 2019
Until very recently, they didn’t even think of themselves as a group at all. They were just three friends who, once in a while, perhaps a couple of times a year or maybe once a month, gathered together to watch football. That is until the Persepolis footballers fanned the flames.
“We arranged to watch the game between Persepolis and Al Sadd together. One of us suggested that we turn the camera on and place it next to the TV so that it would record our reactions,” one of the women told me. “The game ended in a draw and Persepolis got into the finals. We were so excited that we completely forgot we were being recorded. We watched the video after the game and picked the scene when we were cheering the goal.”
But this scene — of three young women celebrating together — changed everything. “I think it was 30 seconds of rejoicing,” one of them told me. “We posted the video on Instagram and Twitter — we couldn’t believe how people reacted. One swore at us. Another ridiculed us, and a third attacked us with sexual insults. We were shocked. We couldn’t understand it. We thought about removing the video but then changed our minds. They wrote about how foolish our rejoicing looked. But we had no idea how to rejoice wisely. Does anybody know what rejoicing wisely means?”
Apparently, in Iran, even joy can be gendered — female vs. male celebrations, male tears vs. female grief. The criticisms of the three women came both from Persepolis fans and their opponents, from men and women alike.
“We got together and talked it over,” my contact said. “We came to the conclusion that all these years football has been monopolized by men. Not just the stadiums, but even the joy of a goal and the sadness of defeat is owned by men. You do not see a woman in the stadiums to know how she rejoices after a goal. You never allow women into the rooms where football is watched to know how women react when the team is behind and needs to score a goal.”
They decided to get together again. Each of them had a relative or a friend or an acquaintance who was crazy about football, so it grew. They gathered for the next game, then for the game after that and for the games that followed.
Then they set up a Telegram channel and, little by little, built up a group — a group that did not exclude anybody, where everyone was welcome. The concept of “Do Not Enter” had no place. Looking at the people who have joined the group, one can find journalists and musicians, medical students and homemakers and high school students. Gender doesn’t matter — but respect for one another does.
No to Gender Separation
“Everything changed,” the woman I spoke with said. “After that, we would gather in various cafés. Men have also joined us, and we all watch football together. Before the Asian Cup, we got together only when Persepolis was playing. After the Asian Cup started we changed how we did it. There were never less than five of us, and sometimes we numbered as many as 45. Esteghlal fans and fans from other teams joined us but, well, our core was made up of Persepolis fans.” She said they had all come from lives where gender segregation was a huge part of life. “What was important was that we did not want gender to get in,” she told me.
Now the group gets together and sings. They shout out, imagining they are in a stadium. When the game is over, they discuss the game. There are a few in the group that are actually professional football critics, with experience of Iran’s completely male football scene. In general, the group reviews the game in somewhat simple technical terms, but everybody talks and everybody listens.
“Personally, I never thought that this small group would grow. But now we are a big pack — from a 17-year-old boy in Bandar Abbas who we have never met, to a couple of friends who live abroad. As it happens, they are all very active and energetic and participate in discussions. Now I think, little by little, we can educate people on what it’s like when women rejoice after a goal.”
The group also includes a number of “Freedom Women,” female fans who disguise themselves as men to sneak into Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium, or who gather outside the bars and gates closed to them to demand the right that has been denied them.
“Since this group came together, we do not go to the stadium as much as we did before,” my interviewee told me.“But the interesting thing is that we never discuss going to the stadium when the group is together. For instance, we might gather to watch a specific game. Then there is no news of Zeinab [one of the ‘Freedom Women’]. Half an hour later we find a video of her on Instagram that shows she had entered the stadium disguised as a man. We do not talk about when we are going to the stadium unless we have decided to go to Azadi Stadium as women. Of course, after last year, when a group of women was arrested, we do it much less.”
One woman who sometimes joins the group is Niloofar Hamedi, a journalist and women’s rights activist. During the final for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League game, she succeeded in securing a press pass and was able to sit in the area reserved for reporters.
“The day that Niloofar went, we had a lump in our throats,” my contact told me. “We were both happy that she had been granted her wish and unhappy that the gates were not open for us. At first, Niloofar did not want to go, but we encouraged her and told her that she must go and represent every one of us. And when the game was over she was the only reporter who challenged [Persepolis’ coach] Branko Ivanković to answer questions about women in sports stadiums.”
This group of fans want Iranians, sporting officials — the world — to know that they are so much more than a women’s group. Anybody can join. They say if people have not seen how women cheer for a goal, there is no reason to mock them. They want us to know that, like other fans, they are disappointed when the ball hits the goal post, they are on edge for the final minutes of the game, they become outraged when the referee disqualifies a goal. They cheer when a player from their team wins a slide tackle, and they are overjoyed and celebrate when their team scores a goal. But they do it in their own way.