Zahra Khoshnavaz is an up and coming poet and writer but one thing in particular distinguishes her from most other female poets and writers: She is crazy about football and a fervent fan of the football team Persepolis. In a country that stubbornly denies women the right to enter sports stadiums, this makes her devotion to the team unique and problematic — or at least a significant challenge.
Zahra Khoshnavaz was first introduced to the public in early 2015, hailed as a promising young poet by Hamshahri, a major national newspaper. She told the paper that she had been studying Persian poetry with a master in the field since 2013. “I participate every week at the Poetry Society meetings of the Omid Cultural Center,” she told the paper. Zahra also mentioned in the Hamshahri interview that she had composed around 30 ghazals (lyric poems) and written more than 60 short stories, adding that publishing her work was not of huge importance to her. Two of her stories, “Summer Journey” and “The Strange Handicraft,” appeared in a children’s magazine in 2012. And in September 2017, Khoshnavaz recited a ghazal from the 19th-century Iranian poet Abbas Foroughi Bastami to open a gathering of the Winter Literary Society.
However, Khoshnavaz has also been one of the few Iranian women to succeed in sneaking into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium disguised as a man. Each time she has done it she has posted a photograph of herself on Instagram a few hours after the game.
The latest photograph shows her at the game between Persepolis and Qatar's Al Sadd, which took place at Azadi Stadium on October 23. This was the third time that she had entered Azadi, each time disguised a little differently and wearing different makeup. Last year, after the game between Persepolis and Tractor Sazi Tabriz FC, she promised that she would again make her way into Azadi Stadium wearing a new disguise. She stayed true to her promise and was one of the more than 100,000 spectators to watch Persepolis’ most important game in a decade up close, witnessing the team advance to the Asian Champions League (AFC) final for the first time in its history.
“Of course I don’t want to disguise myself as a man,” Zahra Khoshnavaz told IranWire. “The day that the national team competed against Bolivia we learned that they were going to give some of the seats to women, so I went to Azadi Stadium in a dress, like I do every day.”
Handpicked Women Spectators
On October 16, following a decades-long ban, a small contingent of 150 women were allowed into Azadi Stadium to watch a friendly match between Iran and Bolivia. But the female fans were not members of the general public who had bought tickets to watch the game. Iran’s Football Federation had handpicked them in a move to stop the international football federation from criticizing Iran for its illegal ban on woman spectators. So Khoshnavaz, like many other women who had arrived at the stadium in the vain hope of getting into the stadium, was kept outside even, as photographs show, many seats located in the area reserved for women were left empty.
“I found it painful,” Khoshnavaz said. “It used to be that they only discriminated against women but on the day of the Iran-Bolivia game I witnessed a greater insult and humiliation. They discriminated against me and in favor of the handpicked women who went into the stadium. This motivated me to again open the gates of the stadium to myself.”
Khoshnavaz also talked about the futile attempts that have been made to allow women into stadiums. “Of course it is painful to me,” she said. “I have to open with my teeth this knot that can be opened by fingers. I have to make myself up and wear men’s clothes to go and sit among the crowd — and I don’t even dare to shout because I am afraid. I am afraid that the guy sitting next to me is an agent and they will throw me out.”
But this time the excitement was too much for her. She could not control herself; suddenly, she shouted. Then she noticed the reaction of the all-male crowd around her. “Those around me found out that I was a woman and this changed their behavior,” Khoshnavaz said. “Apparently an agent had heard me and was looking for the source of the shout. The men around me sprung into action immediately. One of them took off his jacket and draped it across my shoulders. Another put his hat on my head and told me: ‘don’t look at anybody. Keep your head down.’ Those who were sitting in front of me closed ranks to hide me from agents who could be sitting further down. I had a good makeup but, well, they had become suspicious.”
Iranian women have been banned from entering stadiums since 1982, shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Various reasons have been offered for the ban, the most important of which are, of course, fatwas and rulings by religious authorities. Just two examples of many illustrate the point.
“When a woman goes to the stadium and sees half-naked men, it's a sin,” said Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s chief prosecutor, the day after the Iran-Bolivia game. "The presence of women in stadiums is harmful and there's no religious justification for it.” He warned that action will be taken "if such moves continue.”
“The presence of women in stadiums is against the laws of sharia, and all religious authorities have issued edicts on this,” according to Hamed Vasfi, head of a Qom Seminary and author of the book Hijab According to the Koran. He made his statement as Iran was preparing to compete against the United States in the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball 2015 World League. “The presence of women in stadiums promotes prostitution and leads to moral corruption,” he said, adding that, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushed for women to be allowed into stadiums during his presidency, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei took a clear stance, objecting to the idea and declaring it to be wholly unacceptable.
Men’s Dirty Mouths
But some present the ban as a measure to protect women from rough and rowdy men. In 2017 Mohammad Esmael Saeedi, a member of the parliament and a retired Revolutionary Guards commander, said that if the atmosphere in the stadiums is “cleaned up” then women can be allowed in [Persian link]. Otherwise women must be kept out so that they will not be subjected to men’s dirty mouths.
But Zahra Khoshnavaz has a different experience. When those around her found out that she is a woman, she said, “their behavior totally changed. We had to wait for hours before the game started. They told me not to get up to buy things. One went and bough me water. Another got me a sandwich. And they had no ulterior motives. We are told that men go wild when they are not controlled but I saw only humanity. When they found out that I was a woman, they even talked differently.”
She had gone to Azadi Stadium accompanied by three other women disguised as men but she lost them as they entered the stadium. “I was afraid to go back and be found out,” she said. “I had to sit among a crowd of strangers but these strangers became like brothers to me.”
However, she said she won’t repeat this when Persepolis plays the most important game in its history — against Kashima Antlers from Japan in early November for the AFC Championship League final competition. She does not want to have to get into the stadium disguised as a man, and she refuses to watch it on TV. “I have heard that again they are going to let handpicked women into the stadium for the final game because special guests from the AFC and FIFA are coming to Tehran and they want to say, ‘yes, our women have the right to enter the stadium,’” she said. “But I am against discrimination. We are all victims of these discriminations. Even if right now they tell me that I could enter the stadium with those other selected women, I would refuse. I will not commit injustice against my own kind. In all likeliness, I will stand outside the stadium next to all those women who find the gates closed to them.”
She is not very happy with social media campaigns pushing for women to be allowed into stadiums. She says she believes in action. “Everything has been reduced to cyberspace,” she said. “We must act and demand our rights. I will keep going there until I get my rights. I am sure that one day these gates will open to Iranian women and we will be able to enter the stadium without being selected. Our hopes will not be dashed."
More on the ban of Iranian women from stadiums:
150 Female Fans Allowed into Azadi Stadium, October 19, 2018
Women Arrested as Authorities Step up CCTV Surveillance at Azadi Stadium, September 28, 2018
Women Enter Stadium as Fans Refuse to Go Home, June 20, 2018
The Poet, the Woman and the Football Fan, December 31, 2017
Is Khamenei Afraid to Contradict Grand Ayatollahs?, December 13, 2017
Ayatollah Gives Thumbs Down to Women in Stadiums, December 12, 2017
Iranian Women Banned from “Freedom” Stadium — Again, September 6, 2017
"I Was There!": Defying the Ban on Women in Stadiums, February 17, 2017
The Girl Who Sneaked into Azadi Stadium, May 16, 2016
Women in Stadiums: The Ban Continues — Except for a Select Few, February 18, 2016
"Women’s presence in stadiums promotes prostitution", June 15, 2015