Zahra is the latest Iranian woman who has disguised herself as a man to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium – where women are not allowed. But the practice is not new. It started in the mid-1990s when, to get into stadiums, young Tehrani women painted their faces, donned men’s clothing and submitted to a body search by security guards at stadium entrances.
Since 2002 things have become more difficult. But women do still manage to enter stadiums in places like Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz and Ahvaz by masquerading as men.
Last week, Shabnam succeeded in getting into Ghadir Stadium in Ahvaz by using makeup and wearing a fake beard. In an interview with a domestic sports website, she introduced herself as 24, born in Ahvaz and an accounting student at university. Instagram pictures of this young woman in disguise — next to the Iranian football star Ali Karimi and in the stadium holding the Persepolis Football Club’s flag and wearing a Persepolis shirt — show that she is crazy about football. She says that she inherited her love of football from her mother and has followed Persepolis from childhood.
An Aspiring Poet and Artist
But the story of Zahra is a little different. She disguised herself professionally and went to the stadium. She was wearing a long fake beard, had painted her forehead and eyebrows and had covered every facial feature that might indicate she was a woman.
Her full name is Zahra Khoshnavaz. She is 25 and lives in Tehran; but what is different about her is that she is an aspiring musician, photographer, poet and writer. On her Instagram feed she presents herself as a player of the setar, a traditional Iranian musical instrument, adding that she also experiments with writing and literature.
In early 2015 the Tehran newspaper Hamshahri introduced Zahra as a promising young poet. She told the paper that she since 2013 she had studied Persian poetry with a master in the field and that “I participate every week at Poetry Society meetings of the Omid Cultural Center.” Zahra also mentioned in the Hamshahri interview that she had composed around 30 ghazals (lyric poems) and more than 60 short stories. Two of the stories, “Summer Journey” and “The Strange Handicraft”, were published in 2012 in a children’s magazine.
This September Zahra was at a gathering of the Winter Literary Society and she opened the meeting by reciting a ghazal from the 19th-century Iranian poet Abbas Foroughi Bastami.
In other words: there is nothing in her past — and on her Instagram page — to indicate any interest in football. So her visit to the stadium was unexpected and surprising.
She Was Not “Agitated”
The photographers who took Zahra’s pictures at Azadi Stadium, 80 minutes into the Persepolis match on Friday December 29, say that it was towards the end of the game when they noticed her among the spectators. Zahra gave them a helping hand by raising the numbers 4 and 2, a brand sign for Persepolis fans. And she is pleased that her presence at the stadium was seen beyond her own Instagram feed.
A few hours later a video clip was published that shows Zahra and her brother sitting and talking to each other during halftime at the Persepolis and Tractor Sazi football match.
“It is an exceptional experience,” Zahra says in the video. “The atmosphere is not bad and in no way do I feel ‘agitated’.”
“Agitated” is a word used recently with a kind of wry irony by women who want to attend football matches in stadiums. The film and television actress Sahra Ghoreishi, speaking against women attending football matches in an interview last month, said that she becomes “agitated” when among so many men. “I quite agree that women should not be allowed into stadiums,” Ghoreishi added.
But earlier this year Ghoreishi herself had travelled to the United Arab Emirates to watch Persepolis play in Asian League games at Mohammed bin Zayed stadium — and she did not seem to be “agitated” while she was watching the football matches among so many men.
The Wish of a Lifetime
After the match, Zahra posted a picture on Instagram with a caption saying: “The end of years of longing.” The picture is not attached to any lyric poetry — unlike almost all her past posts. Sitting among 80,000 spectators in the stadium, who just happen to have been men, Zahra was no longer a poet or an artist or a musician. She was a woman fulfilling her wish on the day her favorite team won.