Fans of the beautiful game in Iran were yet again deprived of watching an international football match after Iran’s biggest television network shrank away from broadcasting the image of a female referee.
On Wednesday, September 30, Bayern Munich won the 2020 German Super Cup in a nail-biting encounter with Borussia Dortmund, narrowly grasping victory with a final score of 3-2. Unfortunately Iranians planning to watch the action courtesy of the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting caught nothing of this, because the match was overseen – for the last time, it turned out – by veteran referee Bibiana Steinhaus.
Steinhaus, 41, has refereed 23 matches for the Bundesliga, Germany’s professional football league, as well as 92 in the second division and 35 in the Women’s Bundesliga. She was the first woman to officiate in Europe's top five leagues when she made her debut in 2017 and on Wednesday, her last match before retiring, she also became the Super Cup’s first female referee.
This week’s match was not the first time the IRIB has backed out of broadcasting a match at the eleventh hour because of Steinhaus’s apparently upsetting presence. On Friday, February 15 last year, the IRIB suddenly decided to remove a match between Bayern Munich and Augsburg from its listings on discovering Steinhaus would be in the chair – despite having publicized it for the past seven days – and hurriedly replaced it with a different match.
What's the Problem With Bibi Steinhaus?
This coyness on the part of the IRIB, which has no compunction with harassment of its female journalists or airing videos of women giving forced confessions on its 20:30 program, likely has multiple sources. First and foremost, women in Iran are still not allowed to so much as set foot inside a football stadium, with the Islamic Republic still at loggerheads with FIFA on the matter. To depict a woman refereeing a men's game on Iranian state television would muddy the ideological waters.
In addition, there is the possibility that the IRIB is simply intimidated by Steinhaus: arguably one of the most successful female referees in the world, who trained as a footballer throughout her childhood before becoming a police officer. In 2009, the newspaper Bild named her as one of the most important specialist officers in the German city of Hanover.
Two years before this accolade, Steinhaus also became the first referee to oversee a Bundesliga match. In Germany she has since received a cascade of high praise, with Herbert Fendel, chairman of the German football association's refereeing committee, telling WN in 2012: “Today Steinhaus is undoubtedly the best referee in the world."
Described by Fritz Keller, the president of the German football federation, as “an exceptional personality and a pioneer in a male domain”, Steinhaus herself is reticent about her achievements.
“I think we’ve shown it isn't a question of gender when it comes to whether you can be an active referee or not," she told the Phrasenmäher podcast last year. "It's about quality of performance and performance aspirations."
In another interview with the website Fembio, Steinhaus reflected: "You are not foolish if you make a mistake. It is foolish if you do not make a mistake."
But it is, arguably, foolish to make the same mistake every time. For whatever pragmatic or pathological reason, the IRIB has now twice failed to cover one of the most important European football competitions, this time leaving thousands if not millions of Iranians in the lurch during the final – all because of the presence of a woman.
Iranian Media's Blanket Terror of Female Referees
It’s not just Steinhaus, either. In August 2009, French referee Stéphanie Frappart the French female referee, joined the FIFA International Referees List and took over the refereeing of the most important UEFA Super Cup match that year, between England’s Liverpool and Chelsea. The game was not covered in the Islamic Republic on either television or radio.
Iranian female referees, too, suffer from a media blackout. Gelareh Nazemi, one of the most famous female referees in Iranian football and futsal, was nominated for the Best Referee in the World accolade in 2018 and whistled the final of the Youth Olympic Futsal in Argentina between Portugal and Japan. But the IRIB did not broadcast any footage of the game.
Then between February 15 and 17 this year, Nazemi and Zari Fathi refereed the inaugural UEFA Women’s Futsal Championships between them. But the IRIB did not acknowledge the presence of two Iranian referees at this international competition.
On September 24, 2020, Hasan Rouhani claimed that "women's sports in Iran demonstrates that propaganda against the regime is wrong."
Gianni Infantino, the president of the World Football Federation, is probably well aware that the presence of women referees in the World Cup will lead to a boycott of the tournament by the IRIB, which refuses to use female referees. This stubborn policy may yet lead to an even bigger loss for Iran.