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The Real Cost of Censoring Female Athletes in Iran

December 9, 2020
Amir Hossein Miresmaeili
6 min read
Young Iranian football star Golnoush Khosravi signed a contract with a Turkish team last August
Young Iranian football star Golnoush Khosravi signed a contract with a Turkish team last August
The 18-year-old says censorship of women's sports in Iran is driving down income and leaving players in financial hardship
The 18-year-old says censorship of women's sports in Iran is driving down income and leaving players in financial hardship
Khabar Online recently made an editorial decision to digitally manipulate the image of sprint runner Maryam Tusi
Khabar Online recently made an editorial decision to digitally manipulate the image of sprint runner Maryam Tusi

Iranian football star Golnoush Khosravi was born in 2001 in Shahinshahr, Isfahan. After dazzling on the pitch in Iran from a young age, starting at Zob Ahan Isfahan FC, she made the difficult decision to leave her country of birth for Turkey last year.

Khosravi began playing futsal at the age of nine before switching back to football. By the age of 10 she was training with the U-14 women’s national team and made her scoring debut in a 6-0 win over Tajikistan at the AFC U-14 Girls’ Regional Championship in Sri Lanka. She later caught the eye of the Izmir-based, five-time Turkish champions Konak Belediyespor at the AFC U-19 Women’s Championship and last August, signed her first overseas contract with Turkish team. This seminal moment would also mark the first time Khosravi lived away from home.

Now aged 18 and back home due to the coronavirus pandemic, in an interview with IranWire, Khosravi reflects that in order to succeed in Iranian sports women must exert themselves 10 times more than their male counterparts. This is for a simple reason: "The media coverage and the importance given to women's sport is not even 10 percent of what is given to men's."

Worse still, Khosravi says, excessive censorship gets in the way of women’s matches being broadcast Iranian TV. "When we’ve followed the prescribed rules, and appear on the pitch in a full Islamic hijab, what is the reason for not broadcasting the match on TV? Is it bigger than the fact that the broadcasting of games on TV causes sponsors to flock to matches, and pour in more income and professional growth for the athletes?”

Because so many women's sports competitions are not broadcast on domestic television channels in Iran, the national media are similarly reluctant to cover them. In fact, Khosravi says, women’s sports is facing an effective boycott by the media. Sports officials, she says, use this to their advantage and pay women less.

“Do you know how, and on what contracts, Iranian girls are currently participating in the women's football league?” Khosravi told IranWire. “Male footballers can live comfortably for the rest of their lives on just a one-year contract. But what about us women?"

"Only a handful of players in the league have received 100 million tomans [$4,000] for a season. The contracts of other players are worth 10 million to 20 million tomans. There are players in the league who don’t have the money to buy shoes, and come to the field in their teammates’ torn shoes. The summer heat causes their feet to blister as a result, and in winter their shoes fill with water.

“Even if our games were broadcast from just one TV network, these issues would naturally lessen. Why shouldn't we have so much as a suitable grass field for women soccer players anywhere in the country? Why do some female soccer players have to compete with empty stomachs?

“We female football players also like to drive nice cars, live in big houses and eat good food, just like the men. What makes us less than them? Believe me, in terms of the quality of the football, we might even be better than some of the teams in the Men's Premier League. But we are constantly stuck. We urge football fans to monitor women's football more, because the higher the demand for our games and news about women’s sports, the more the media will be encouraged to cover it.”


Four Decades of Obfuscating Women’s Sporting Achievements

For the past 41 years, the images of both Iranian women at large and Iranian female athletes have been obsessively censored in the Islamic Republic of Iran. This has caused many brilliant young athletes to leave the country or retire from professional sports at a young age.

The censorship of women’s sport in Iran, on the orders of a limited but powerful circle of religious hardliners, is largely motivated by a desire to keep men from seeing women play sports. This manifests in several ways aside from the moratorium on broadcasting. The latest bizarre example in the Iranian media was an editorial decision by Khabar Online to digitally manipulate the image of sprint runner Maryam Tusi by erasing her breasts from an image online. Even though Tusi was wearing “Islamic” sports gear as prescribed by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Athletics Federation, the natural shape of a woman’s body was apparently intolerable to state-aligned media.

Female athletes are also barred from practicing certain types of sport because their participation is deemed “anti-religion and anti-Sharia”. This includes alysh, or traditional belt wrestling, though there is a national women’s wrestling team.

In both 2015 and 2018, the Iranian women’s futsal team won the womenm’s Asian Futsal Championship. Their victories were never broadcast on Iranian state television, forcing fans to tune in on illegal satellite channels. Tayebeh Siavashi, the then-MP for Tehran, later observed of the incident: "Despite many follow-ups with the IRIB and the Ministry of Sports and Youth, the AFC final was not televised because of the outfits of the Japanese women. Iranian women were able to reach the pinnacle of Asian futsal despite all the hardships and restrictions, but not even a single radio program commended the efforts of these athletes."

Sara Shirbeigi, the goal-scoring star of the 2018 AFC championship, begged on returning to Iran: "Please be assured that women's games are also worth covering! We go into the match in full hijab and I don’t think there is anything wrong with broadcasting the game. My family could have watched it. I’ve played 15 futsal games but my father didn’t know what my position was and thought I was a goalkeeper!”

Images of female Kabaddi – a type of contact sport – finalists at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta were also censored in Iran. This was met with a wave of protest after images of the final were circulated on social media.

While contests abroad involving Iranian female athletes can easily be censored on the pretext of foreign competitors’ “inappropriate” dress, the Iranian regime and media have no such excuse at home. Domestic competitions of all stripes, from football to table tennis to fencing, are held with female athletes in full Islamic hijab and under the supervision of security officials.

Then again, perhaps this should come as little surprise given the directors of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting have shown they cannot even tolerate the sight of women spectators in stadiums. Recently, amid international pressure, Tehran Security Council granted permission for women to enter Azadi Stadium to watch Tehran's Persepolis team play the Japanese Kashima Antlers in the Asian Champions League final. But in its coverage of the whole 90-minute match, the IRIB did not show any footage of the area where the women were sitting.

The sheer level of media antipathy has made it hard for some Iranian women athletes to cope. But Golnoush Khosravi, the 18-year-old football prodigy, is determined. “Although I’ve been abused many times over the years and been disappointed many times, I still fight,” she told IranWire. “Life has been very difficult for me and my family in the past few years, but there is no choice but to hope for the future.”



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