Two and a half years ago in summer 2019, the Iranian Football Federation was still under the embattled leadership of Mehdi Taj, who would resign not long after mired in allegations of corruption. In July that year, the Federation had signed a contract with Pars Oil Company for the sponsorship Iran’s football referees.
The following month at the outset of the Iran Pro League season, male Iranian referees duly appeared on the pitch wearing shirts emblazoned with Pars Oil Company’s logo on the back. Female football referees received their own uniforms a week later. Their counterparts in the futsal league were left waiting another 10 weeks.
But that same month, female Pro League referees lodged a complaint against unpaid wages. They were illegally dismissed en masse from their posts, without a disciplinary hearing and in violation of the Federation’s statute. Mehdi Taj decided to press ahead with the women’s football matches, shorn of around 30 prominent female referees.
Eventually Hedayat Mombini, chairman of the Federation’s Referees Committee, intervened and ensured the women all received their back-pay. But they were all then terminated and disqualified. Some of the 30 were even on FIFA’s official referees list, and received threats from sporting officials that they would be taken off that list too if they kept protesting.
The long impact of this shambolic episode is still being felt in Iranian women’s football. In the most recent Iran Pro League season, the Federation was forced to use referees with little to no experience of top-level matches; in one case a futsal referee was deployed to the field who mistakenly imposed the rules of futsal on the game. At the same time, the pay question continues to put livelihoods and future matches in jeopardy.
Promise of a Pay Rise Despite Years of Owed Back-Pay
Until the end of the last season, the Iranian Football Federation paid each head referee 120,000 tomans (US $28) per game. Assistant referees received 80,000 tomans ($19) and fourth referees 40,000 tomans ($9.5).
When the most recent season got under way, the Referees Committee announced that it would be increasing the pay of female football referees by 400 percent, to a little below 500,000 tomans ($118): clearly intended as an incentive to bring in fresh talent to make up for the still-serious shortfall.
However, the unreported side of the story is that so far this season, none of Iran’s female Pro League referees have been paid anything either. Their male counterparts have been paid in full while for the time being, all of the women are operating on faith alone. This year they have not even received any word of partial payment, or payment in instalments. Put simply, the Iranian Football Federation has stopped paying its female referees.
Humiliation and Match Troubles as Female Referees Put Onto Field in Old Gear
Winter is coming to an end, but in addition to not being paid, female referees also have yet to receive their uniforms for the season. In some of the women’s Pro League games, the referees have work parkas of different colours – their own personal clothing – so as to shield themselves against the cold.
Unbelievably, this too is a state of affairs that has now persisted for four years straight: Iranian football referees have not received their winter garments and been forced to cover them out of their own pockets. Even with all the financial issues that have plagued Iranian sports of late, this is a trifling amount that the Federation could have paid.
In addition, female referees have not received fresh day-to-day uniforms for the past two years. The gear they wear on the pitch is the same as they were given in 2019. As a result of this, last season, at a match between the Sirjan Municipal Team and Isfahan Sepahan Club, female referees ended up wearing uniforms of the same color as the Sepahan team. This led to protests by fans, and a complaint by the Sepahan head coach that his players had repeatedly passed the ball to the female referee by accident.
In the same period, the Referees Committee has had no trouble finding the money for several outfit changes, hotel stays, training, suitcases, flags and of course wages for male referees. The women have been left unpaid, in outdated and often ill-fitting outfits: they have characterized their kits as “the leftovers”. They are also bereft of the wireless communication afforded to their male counterparts during matches, unless one of their male colleagues has the heart to lend the tech to them.
Nepotism and Targeting of Top Employees
Fatemeh Fahimi is the Federation official responsible for the placement of female referees. She has been supported by the Iranian security establishment for years, and remains unscathed after repeated changes at the top level of the Federation’s governance and on the Referees Committee. Iranian female referees have alleged that all her activities are in the name of self-preservation, and she has not so much as brought up their needs – or demands – at committee meetings going back years.
This year, one of the female referees rushed in to fill the shortfall on the international list was Atena Lashani. She had no experience with the Pro League and had not even passed the mandatory pre-season tests. She is, however, married to Danial Moradi, development officer at the Football Federation.
Mahsa Ghorbani, meanwhile, is one of the referees that the Federation tried and failed to remove from FIFA’s. She was the first Iranian woman to referee a men’s match, at an AFC (Asian Football Federation) Asian Cup game in the Maldives. But when she refused to wear the uniform designated for female referees from Islamic countries, she was blacklisted by the Iranian Federation and for some time blocked from overseeing Pro League matches back at home.
When FIFA invited Ghorbani to referee the Olympics qualification games, the Federation tried to block her by not responding to the invitation. Ghorbani circumvented this by reaching out to FIFA herself, and today remains an international referee.
In a curious episode in early 2021, Aso Javaheri, an international referee of both women’s soccer and futsal, was banned for weeks by the Federation from Pro League matches. This was reportedly related to her "research in the field of sociology of sports" and past in "gender studies and political economy in sports". Javaheri, who holds a PhD in economic sociology and development, gave an interview after the suspension in which she claimed that Alireza Sohrabi, the current head of the Referees Committee, had told her she had to choose between her refereeing work and social research.
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Iran under a pseudonym.