President Hassan Rouhani has ordered the Foreign Ministry and the country’s sports minister to ensure Iran’s women’s futsal team is allowed to travel to Guatemala to take part in the 6th Women Futsal World Tournament.  

The team, which won the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Women’s Futsal Championship on September 26, was due to travel to Guatemala City for the tournament, which will take place November 24-29, 2015. But on November 5, sports officials in Iran announced that the team would not be taking part because of difficulties obtaining visas. The news met with criticism across Iranian media and social network sites. 

On November 8, Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the First Deputy Chairman of the Parliamentary Sports Caucus, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that the president had stepped in and “issued a special order to the Foreign Ministry to facilitate the process of acquiring visas to send the Iranian Women’s Futsal Team to the tournament.”

According to Iranian law, the “visa notice”, meaning a written request for visas from an embassy, cannot be issued without an order from the highest government official.


“Unbelievable Excuses” — and a Strong Activist Campaign

Iranian journalist and campaigner Leily Nikounazar said women’s rights activists and supporters of Iran’s women’s futsal team were relieved that Rouhani had taken action. “We don’t know what will happen next and whether the necessary visas will actually be issued,” she said, “but we’re very hopeful.” 

Nikounazar, who is based in Belgium, said that prior to Rouhani’s decision to step in, Iran’s Football Federation had come up with “unbelievable excuses” to explain why the team had to cancel its trip to Guatemala. “It’s clear that the federation and Iranian sports authorities do not place value on women’s sport,” she said, adding that the federation had arranged for male athletes to travel to Guatemala only a few weeks previously. 

Head of the Iranian Football Federation Ali Kafashian had said that the authority was unable to obtain the necessary travel visas for the team because Guatemala did not have a consulate or embassy in Iran. The team would have to fly to Germany to obtain visas, and to do so, the athletes would need to arrange separate Schengen visas, a bureaucratic complication it had not anticipated, especially in terms of the time it would take — an excuse Nikounazar and other activists criticized as “ridiculous inefficiency.”

In an interview published by ISNA, Ali Majedi, the Iranian ambassador to Germany, said the Iranian Football Federation had not contacted the embassy in Germany. Had they done so, the embassy could have arranged for the team to travel to Germany.

But these explanations contradicted another account, from Elaheh Arab-Ameri, the female deputy president of the Women’s Football Federation, who represents the Sports Ministry inside the federation: “Officials from the Guatemalan Football Federation told us to take our team to Mexico and stay there for two days and then enter Guatemala after fingerprints were taken. Can you imagine how we could go to Mexico with 20 young women and wait there for two days without knowing what the situation wouldl be?” She said the prospects of the team being allowed to travel to Guatemala did not look promising, despite the fact that the games had been timetabled well in advance.


Security Concerns? 

According to a citizen journalist based in Iran, months ago, the Iranian Football Federation had managed to obtain visas for the players to travel to Guam, an island in the Western Pacific that requires US visas, by liaising with the embassy of Guam in the United Arab Emirates. Despite some of the claims made by the federation, the journalist, using the pseudonym Pedram Ghaemi, said it seems unlikely that the federation had to deal with prohibitive expenses when dealing with the Guatemala trip. The real obstacle the team faced was not the complex bureaucracy around obtaining Guatemalan visas or funding, but opposition from the Sports Ministry’s security team. 

Travel permits for athletes and federation members are usually signed by Reza Hasani-Khoo, Director General of Security at the Sports Ministry, and Mohammad Hossein Hamisi, head of the Football Federation’s security unit. Both are employed by the Interior Ministry’s security unit, and both previously worked for the Ministry of Justice.

Reports from Tehran say that Reza Hasani-Khoo has been openly opposed to the futsal team traveling to Guatemala.


Rouhani: “Let the Women’s Futsal Team Travel”

President Hassan Rouhani has ordered the Foreign Ministry and the country’s sports minister to ensure Iran’s women’s futsal team is allowed to travel to Guatemala to take part in the 6th Women Futsal World Tournament.

Posted by Iranwire English on Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Rouhani’s Intervention

This is not the first time the president has intervened in Iranian Football Federation matters. He indirectly supported Carlos Queiroz, the Portuguese head coach who led Iran’s National Football Team in its 2014 World Cup campaign, making it possible for head of the federation Ali Kafashian to confront Sports Minister Mahmoud Goodarzi, who had opposed the appointment, on the matter. But this recent very public and direct move is unprecedented. 

For the most part, Rouhani has had a populist approach to sports, an approach that has largely gone down well with the Iranian public. The issue of gender equality — in sport, but also in Iranian society — has been an important one for Rouhani. According to journalist and activist Leily Nikounazar, it was a key strand of his 2013 election promise to usher in a freer, more open approach in Iran. With the parliamentary elections only a few months away, Rouhani’s decision to intervene is likely to be part of a strategy to bolster support for his political allies and wider agenda. 

Nikounazar acknowledged that some Iranian politicians are not simply uninterested or unsupportive of female athletes, they are actively against them taking part in sport at all. And the issue of women being allowed into sports stadiums to watch and support Iranian sport has long been controversial, with activists galvanizing international support on the cause. President Rouhani’s Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi had previously supported female fans’ rights to enter stadiums and watch sport, writing about it in a public forum earlier this year. But according to Nikounazar, she has now had to step back from the issue, as pressure from the clergy had become too extreme. In addition to opposition on religious or cultural grounds, the Women’s Football Federation does not receive adequate funds from the Sports Ministry, according to a report published in Shargh newspaper. And Mehr News Agency reported that it would cost the federation a billion Iranian tomans (around $340,000) to send the team to Guatemala, a price tag well beyond its budget.

According to Iranian activist and journalist Leily Nikounazar, prior to Sunday’s news that the president had intervened, Iranian journalists activists in and outside Iran had begun discussing the best way to pressure the federation, with groups including Macholand and Everyday Feminism coordinating efforts on Facebook and other social networks. They had planned a Twitter storm for November 9, where activists would both raise awareness about the issue of women in sport in Iran and appeal to the federation to take the necessary steps to obtain visas for the athletes. This would include tweeting directly to Kafashian and other sport authorities in Iran. They had also coordinated letters to Iranian MPs, and were in the process of gathering signatures. If the federation failed to follow Rouhani’s special directive, activists were ready to pick up where they left off and begin mobilizing support for the team again, Nikounazar said.

Many activists both inside and outside Iran had links to and regularly corresponded with Vice President Molaverdi, who had actively supported Iran’s women’s futsal team, Nikounazar said.

The latest developments call into question a recent statement by Abuzar Nadimi, a member of parliament’s Sports Caucus. In an interview, Nadimi said that the sports officials could come to the committee to help on issues to do with international competitions. According to citizen journalist Pedram Ghaemi, the Football Federation had repeatedly appealed to the caucus to secure exit permits for players who were unable to leave Iran because they were required to carry out their national military service, but that the committee had not been able to help. And now that Rouhani has intervened on the futsal issue, the credibility of both the caucus and of more senior sport officials in Iran seems to be under scrutiny. 


Additional reporting from Pedram Ghaemi, a citizen journalist who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity


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