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Women Have Been Demanding Their Right to Play Football for Half a Century

March 10, 2021
7 min read
Iran’s first national women's football team in the 1970s
Iran’s first national women's football team in the 1970s
Taj (Esteghlal)  recorded the first official Iranian women's football win
Taj (Esteghlal) recorded the first official Iranian women's football win

British soldiers introduced football to Iran in 1908, but it took 62 years before women could get anywhere near the sport.

Women's football began in Iran in 1970. The first sparks were ignited when women first joined men in playing for local and street teams in various cities, serving as goalkeepers and sometimes playing other positions too. It is worth noting that at that time, football was officially banned for women in the United Kingdom, having been deemed by a doctor to be a "most unsuitable game, too much for a woman's physical frame” in 1921. Football for women was only reinstated in the UK in 1971.

The story of Iranian women's football has rarely been seen or heard, and the history books have all but ignored it. When they have included references to women's football, this information has often later been redacted. 

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Initially, as Iranian women showed a significant interest in football, the Iranian Football Federation decided to send a group of women to train with the international football federation FIFA to learn about coaching and playing. The first Iranian women soccer players were able to watch football matches played by Singapore, India and Korea, all of which were held at FIFA’s training fields. They learned the basics of football and brought the techniques of the game back with them to Iran.

The first women's soccer team in Iran was established by Taj Club, also known as Esteghlal. It gathered talented women together and held training for them. In 1971, the first game took place between Tehran women's football clubs Taj and Deihim. Taj recorded the first official women's football win, scoring six goals. In the years between 1969 and 1972, other clubs including Persepolis, Pass and Eagle were also formed.

One matter of historical importance that has been ignored or forgotten is that the first head coach for the winning women's team was Alan Rogers, who was also head coach for the men's team at the time. 

The first international women's soccer match was held in Iran while women's soccer was still banned in the UK, and at a time when women’s football had only recently been allowed in Italy, Germany, Norway, and several other European countries.

The Women's and Ladies Institute, which was under the direction of Ms. Parry Abasalti, and which also produced The Journal of Women,  invited a team of selected women football players from Italy to play a friendly match against Taj women's football team on September 8, 1971. The match, the first international game for Iranian women's football, ended in Taj losing to its opponent with a result of 0-2.

The Italian women's national team also played against the first Iranian women's national football team, which was selected from players from Tehran clubs. The match ended in a 4-0 victory for the Italian team.

The Victory of the Islamic Revolution, the Defeat of Iranian Women's Football

Throughout the 1970s, the excitement around women’s football was no longer limited to Tehran. Anzali became the first city outside to embrace the sport for women. In fact, fans and players did not focus on gender. Women and men in Anzali worked together to plant rice in the fields, and they went out in the alleys and back streets to play soccer together too.

In 1971, Kayhan Varzeshi newspaper published a photograph of the friendly match between the Taj and Italian women's teams. It shows a stadium full of spectators, with men and women watching the game together.

A review of the archives for the publications Donya-e Varzesh, Kayhan Varzeshi, and Zan-e Ruz4 reveals that women’s sports was covered in print on a weekly basis.

The formation of the first official Iranian women's national team coincided with Iran’s Islamic Revolution. New laws were introduced that barred women from engaging in any sporting activity in public. After years of discrimination, Britain and Germany (both West Germany and the German Democratic Republic) liberalized football for women and ordered the formation of professional leagues. And yet, in Iran, women’s football entered a bleak period. After two decades of effort, everything fell apart for women footballers.  Hijab became mandatory, women were deprived of many of their rights, and were generally restricted from participating in society.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, delivered his view of women and the role they played in society: "The honorable women of Iran proved ... that they are the stronghold of chastity and infallibility, and that the right and strong youth and chaste and committed girls of this country will never fall and follow the ways that the great powers, who set out to destroy this country, follow."

Although Khomeini was not openly opposed to women's sports, this brand of rhetoric coupled with post-revolutionary restrictions placed on women's sports made the situation increasingly problematic for women.

First Women's Competition After the Revolution

Thirteen years later, in early 1993, football in Iran was somewhat revived with indoor football, also known as futsal, competitions held for the first time at Al-Zahra University (formerly Farah University). That year, women were only given the right to play in futsal and indoor competitions, with their heads fully covered and without the presence of even a single man. After that, the national women's soccer team was re-formed after numerous consultations between Khadijeh Sepanji, the current vice president of the Women's Football Federation, and the scholars of Qom. Finally, the team was ready to take part in matches.

Khadijeh Sepanji started her work as the first vice president of the Women's Football Federation in 2004, and she also served as chairperson for the Women's Committee when it was set up as part of the wider Iranian Football Federation. The Asian Football Confederation then sent a letter to the Iranian Football Federation inviting the Iranian women's national team to participate in the first round of the West Asian Championship. Sepanji immediately ordered Shahrzad Mozaffar, who was active in the women's futsal department, to form a team and travel to the tournament. Quietly and without any coverage from the media, the team trained on Field No 2 at Azadi Stadium and traveled to compete in the tournament. In addition to Iran, teams from Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Bahrain were also present. Iran lost to Jordan in the final, qualifying as runner-up in the competition.

At that point, the media noticed the existence of the Iranian women's national football team and reported on their success, albeit very minimally. The team again came second in the West Asian Championships in 2007. That same year marked a historic milestone for Iranian women's football. The Berlin women's team traveled to Iran to play against the Iranian women's national team at Ararat Stadium. Only women were allowed as spectators at the game, male foreign media reporters were barred from attending and even police officers at the stadium were women. The match was the first the Iranian women’s national team had played in the open air after the revolution. Both teams were required to observe the Islamic headscarf. 

At half time, Berlin was up 2-0, but Iran equalized in the second half and the final score was 2-2. "This game was big progress for us," said Masoumeh Rezazadeh, who played for the Iranian team. "It is extremely difficult to prepare for such a match in our country, and we were playing for the first time with a well-established foreign team."

This inspired Khadijeh Sepanji to form a women's football league. So, instead of spending her time in an office or in the gym and training ground for Iranian women soccer and futsal players, she traveled back and forth on the Tehran-Qom road, meeting with Iranian "sources of emulation" — Iran's most influential and powerful religious leaders — to end the ban on women's football.

Khadijeh Sepanji finally succeeded in establishing the first necessary bases for the Women's Football League in 2007 with the support of Faezeh Hashemi in the field of and then Mohsen Safaei Farahani as the President of the Football Federation. In this way, girls' football stepped into the open air and the green rectangle from inside the hall and from the floor of the halls.

Khadijeh Sepanji was able to get a license to run women's soccer with clothes that were not approved by FIFA, or the Asian Football Confederation or the Physical Education Organization; rather, it was approved by the Qom religious authorities.

Women's football is still under the shadow of the same clerics, extremists and even Friday prayer Imams. It is also worth pointing out that, according to the order of the Ministry of Interior, the Iranian Women's League games should be held in the early hours of the morning, before noon. The ministry has never stated why, but presumably it is linked to the very complicated relationship between women’s football and the government, which has been awkward and tense at best, and hostile and obstructive at its lowest points.

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