I am a small boy in the family room of our old house in Qazvin, where there is a dining table, a TV, several chairs, and a few columns. I am passing the sponge ball to the wall, dribbling through the chairs and columns, and shooting the ball strongly at the wall in front that acts as my goal post. (Sometimes I played with my brothers or my dad; it was hard to dribble past my brothers, but Dad was kind enough to let me do whatever I wanted.) I am commentating on my own moves. I am Mehdi Mahdavikia playing against China, against the US. I run, I shoot, and the stadium explodes in an uproar. The commentator, who is none other than myself, shouts, “Goal! Goal for Iran! Goal for Iran!” and I run around the room.
Then, we changed houses. In the late 1370s (early 1990s), my parents, who were both teachers, like many middle classers, gained some financial stability, grew more ambitious. We exchanged the old house in the traditional neighborhood for an apartment with a more modern architecture. Our house shrank in size, our neighborhood changed, Dad became less patient, and my brothers left Qazvin to go to college. My soccer time got limited to school. Instead, we bought a SEGA, and later a computer, and it was then that I was divided into two Moeens.
Before, when I shot a ball in real life, there was one Moeen who was both the player and the commentator. Now, in the virtual world, the two selves inside me diverged. One was sitting in front of the computer staring at the monitor, and the other was playing on the virtual soccer field. The player I created in the FIFA game and named after myself was a better, more complete version of me. Unlike me, the virtual Moeen was not lanky, but rather strong and macho, someone who could not be bullied. Unlike my real self, who could not make a single shot from outside the penalty area, the Moeen in the FIFA game could shoot from wherever he was; he could keep his balance while dribbling, could run as fast as his rival whenever he stroked the ball forward. My virtual version, like Mehdi Mahdavikia, played on Iran’s national team, and I, the real one, would be the commentator. He could get the ball and humbly pass it on to his teammates to score a goal. He could even score a goal himself, and what a goal! What a goal! I would sit in front of the screen for hours and create a narrative for myself. Every day, I would win one tournament or another, hold the cup up in the air, happy and smiling, and twirl the Iranian flag.
There was one real-life soccer event that I still clearly remember from when I was young. At the 1998 World Cup, Iran faced the USA. My nine-year-old self did not know much about the political situation between the two countries other than what I had been fed by state TV. I thought the match was more than an ordinary match. It was the Iranian nation against the American nation. We were playing against the enemy, and what was happening on the field was symbolic of the war outside the stadium. I clearly remember that Ali Daei passed the ball to Mahdavikia, who made a run, came face-to-face with the American goalkeeper, and took a shot. I didn’t see the moment of the goal. I didn’t get to commentate on it either. I was running around the house and screaming. My aunt called from Tehran to congratulate me because my favorite player had scored a goal. I vaguely remember the scenes that followed, the streets filled with crowds, cars constantly honking. We didn’t have a flag with us, and, baffled, I kept staring at the kids who had stuck their torsos out of car windows, waving their Iranian flags around, and wondered where they had bought them. I kept trying to narrate, in my mind, those moments, but failed. In my life, there has always been a body living and a mind narrating, but this time what was happening was too real to let me be both my living self and my narrator self.
Now that I think about soccer—whether playing the actual game or creating my FIFA character or simply watching a match—it has always been a way for me to connect myself to a larger collective narrative. All the emotions arising from the victories and losses weaves my personal narratives together and to those of the broader community. I am no longer alone in a room, stuck with my own definition of myself, but connected to thousands and millions of other people. Something that naturally happens whenever you go to a stadium, especially for high-stakes matches.
The first time I went to Azadi [Freedom] Stadium, it was for the final match of the national cup, with Persepolis facing another team. The moment I entered the stadium, I felt my mind suddenly go blank. I was in shock. The red light of the afternoon sun surrounded me, and the voices of the soccer fans seemed to echo eternally. All throughout the match, I was dumbfounded. My mind had lagged behind my body. In the short video a friend took that day, all of us are standing still. It was the last penalty, and if Persepolis scored, they would win. The video starts with the team’s player running toward the ball, and when he kicks it into the goal the camera turns to the fans, zooming in on me. I jump up high in the air, scream, and make an illegible sound, a long “Aaaaaa” like I had only heard from the donkeys in my childhood cartoons. My reaction looks stupid, but it was unconscious. This is the most shameful video that exists of me (of my other shameful acts there are no videos). With an open mouth and cheeks with parenthetical wrinkles, I turn to my friend so we can jump into each other’s arms, but I notice that he is recording. I continue to scream among the other fans. An empty scream; empty but real.
Four years ago, I watched the Iran-Portugal match in the stadium. It was not a live match, but a broadcast of the one held in Russia. After years of failed attempts by women to enter the stadium, the Islamic Republic regime had finally decided to allow it. For the first time in my life, I went to a soccer match with my female friends. The one-hundred-thousand-person stadium was not full; there were people here and there in groups, staring at the screen that was as big as one of the stands. Now that I think back to the stadium that night, I realize that nothing about it resembled a real stadium: the field was submerged in total darkness, the goal posts in shadows even deeper than the field’s. Instead, we could see images of the national team players on a too-bright screen, playing with bodies that had no real, concrete weight. The broadcast signal was poor. Everything felt like being in a sci-fi movie. All my memories of live matches in the stadium were filled with people who watched a game unfolding in real time on a warm day. Players who fought over the ball each and every second of the match, and fans who trash talked each other, shouting politically incorrect slogans in unison, not heeding the younger kids around who were listening. Matches that were performances of unity, passion, and pride. But I also realized that in all these mental images, each and every one of the fans in the stadium was, without exception, a man.
Dystopian stories are always about the present moment, even when they are set in the future. They take an element of the present and exaggerate it to show us how the time we live in can lead to a future that we cannot image from our current vantage point. I think Margaret Atwood, whose novel The Handmaid’s Tale resembles women’s lives under the Islamic Republic regime, would agree with me that totalitarian governments provide all that one needs for such stories. These regimes push everything to the extreme, to a place beyond people’s imagination. When your ordinary life is too hard to tolerate, you can barely imagine any future. After all, regular day-to-day life—if its potential for love and solidarity are manifested—can work like a nuclear bomb against these regimes.
Perhaps it was my dystopian experience at the Iran-Portugal match that brought me, for the very first time, face-to-face with our reality. I suddenly discovered a big void inside myself. There was not one single woman present in any of the stadiums I had attended during any of my teams’ matches. Men’s soccer is defined by people’s love for the game and its excitement, but this love is also expressed with the language and symbols of war: winning versus losing, humiliating the opponent, brandishing one’s flag, arrogance, hiding one’s weaknesses, and a lack of empathy. (If you think these are the characteristics of all sports teams of any gender, I want to remind you that the American LGBTQ support movement owes part of its success to its national women’s soccer team, as shown in the movie The Playbook. Compare this to the silence of the men’s teams in the face of the issues during the Qatar World Cup, including that country’s anti-LGBTQ laws.) Everything is ready for what is called “sportswashing” these days: a sparkly show full of noise, with the code name of unity, confiscating what could have been people’s real love for one another and for life, the collective compassion that can grow out of shared wounds.
What we watched on our TV screens or in a stadium filled with one hundred thousand men had been the game ongoing in the field. Whatever happened off the field, outside of the screen or the stadium—or in the next room, from which Mom shouted, “Turn the volume down!”—had all been ignored. I was ashamed that I had never before noticed it. Where was Mom when Dad, my brothers, and I played soccer? (She was worried that we would break the objects in the house with our ball, or she was irritated by the noise we made.) In our all-masculine household, where the TV was always taken over by the news and soccer, how did Mom live? (I really don’t know.) The days when we went to the one-thousand-man Azadi Stadium, where were the women?
In his film Offside, the now-jailed director Jafar Panahi showcases the attempts of a group of young women to enter the stadium: before each match, they gathered at the gates to protest. They did all they could, even wore men’s clothing, all for their love of soccer to be officially acknowledged. But not all stories of young female fans are turned into films or covered by the media. Most of their faces are never seen, their voices never heard. There is, however, one girl whose story everyone knows today: the girl now known as The Blue Girl. In March 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, wanted to enter the stadium wearing men’s clothing, the same stadium I have never had any problems entering. She wore a long overcoat and a blue wig—the color of her team, Esteghlal. When the police found her out, they arrested her and sent her to Qarchak prison. She was there for three nights before she was freed on bail. Some time later, she went to court to get her cell phone back. According to some reports, she was told that she could be sentenced to six months to two years of imprisonment. Sahar set herself on fire in front of the court and died a week later on September 9, 2019. The very act that Homa Darabi, an Iranian pediatrician, academic, and political activist had done sixteen years before to protest mandatory hijabs. Sahar hid her body one day in order to gain access to Azadi Stadium and burned that very body in the middle of the street another day. A week later, she passed away. FIFA published a statement saying they were aware of the tragedy and deeply regretted it. They stressed that the Iranian Soccer Federation had to let women enter the stadiums (one of FIFA’s missions is to keep soccer games free of any discrimination). Following that, Iranian women were allowed in the stadium for only one national team match, the one between Iran and Cambodia on October 9, 2019, but even that was in limited numbers, and women were seated in a separate section cordoned off by fences, under strict security measures.
It was that Iran-Cambodia match, of all the World Cup qualifying matches, that I went to see live in the stadium. We went with our female friends. At the gate, the women headed to the section designated for them, and we men were free to sit anywhere we wished. I am not in a position to speak about the women’s experience that day, or any day. Even in the stadium, we could not really see or hear what they were doing or saying. We only saw things after the game, through the images that were everywhere on social media: We, the men, seemed to be relaxing in a park. The women, on the other hand, sat close together, unified, shouting, excited and happy. That day, the women reclaimed their images and voices in the stadium. Nothing was really normal, but at least the voice of the stadium did not belong just to men anymore. We, the men, were totally bored by the one-sided match, but we were forced to sit so far away from the women that we couldn’t even hear them or share in their excitement at being in the stadium.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and games were all canceled. We were exiled to our homes and could only see each other through our cell phone screens. If any “we” took shape, it was through images and sounds that failed to sync. We only got blurry narratives of one another’s lives. When the virus receded a bit and we did not need to limit ourselves to each other’s virtual presence and images anymore, many pre-pandemic aspects of our lives came back, but not soccer. The Iranian Soccer Federation kept the stadiums closed so that it did not have to deal with FIFA’s regulations regarding women.
The fact is that there is no official law against the presence of women in soccer stadiums in Iran, but since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have unofficially been banned from them. Presently, Iran is the only country in the world with such restrictions. One of the Federation’s excuses is “lack of necessary foundations,” which really means lack of the means needed to separate women from men in the stadiums. In the final match of the qualifying round for the 2022 World Cup, Iran played against Lebanon. The Iranian Federation took the match to the city of Mashhad, one of the most religious in the country and one that, according to Iran’s Sports and Youths Minister, “has its own rules and regulations” and thus legally prohibits the presence of women in stadiums—though in the end, soccer officials decided to sell tickets to the match to women as well. They bought tickets but were still held back behind the gates and welcomed with tear gas. No one took responsibility for the attack. The Iranian National Team players expressed hope that the problems around women’s presence would soon be resolved and they would one day be able to enter the stadiums. Public protests and demands that FIFA take action against the Federation and hold them accountable for their sexist regulations were met with silence. Right before the official start of the World Cup, Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s director, wrote a letter asking all soccer federations to keep soccer and politics separate so that everyone could enjoy the games. In other words: Let’s forget about what’s happening off the field. Let’s only pay attention to the game.
After the killing of Mahsa/Zhina Amini and the beginning of the Woman Life Freedom movement, the same arguments were heard from the Iranian National Team’s players and their Portuguese coach. They insisted that they were sportsmen and were focused on the games, that they wanted to make people happy by playing soccer. In one match, maybe of their own volition or due to people’s pressure, they didn’t sing the Iranian national anthem; in another, under pressure from the regime, they did. While the players jumped up and down with joy after beating the Welsh team and some people celebrated in Tehran, another Bloody Friday was happening in the city of Zahedan. Regardless of what the players did or did not do, what is often disregarded in this larger context is the sexism that has disrupted our collective soccer narrative all these years, the official propaganda that has aimed to cover up the holes in our story with noise and pretended it was interested in unity during the World Cup.
Each one of us might, at some point in our lives, come face-to-face with the gaps that have interrupted our personal and collective narratives. One such point can be when the voices of those who have been marginalized and disregarded are raised so loud that we have to hear them, to acknowledge them. It’s only then that the false heroes we have created of ourselves in our unreal alternative worlds are shattered and we begin to re-narrate ourselves in the new, larger context. One of the achievements of the current uprising in Iran is that the voices that I and many others had failed to hear for many years are now being heard. If we, the men—who throughout the years have written a narrative of ourselves and of our collective “we” by excluding and silencing women with our loud voices—fail to reevaluate our roles, we will all be stuck in a swampland. This uprising is an opportunity for all of us to rewrite our narratives with a new language. A language that won’t easily submit to prefabricated stories and structures. A language that demands the expansion of the concept of “self” and begins to build a new collective consciousness.
Now that I live thousands of kilometers away from Iran, I spend hours every day watching the videos from the streets and try to redefine myself through them. My body is glued to my cell phone, but my mind is somewhere else. It is fixed on the eyes of a girl standing at her mother’s grave and fiercely staring into the camera, holding in one hand a bundle of white flowers and in the other some of her cut hair. On the images of girls who march in the streets hijab-less. On my friend’s voice saying, “Listen! People are shouting slogans through each and every window.” On the picture of a friend who is arrested, the picture of a stranger who is arrested and now is more familiar to me than any acquaintance. On slogans that have risen from thousands of throats, voices from the daily lives of people who have no idea when a bullet might turn their bodies lifeless. On the faceless names of those who have been sentenced to prison, to execution. I stare at my phone and try to put the pieces of this collective narrative in the making together. I watch videos from one street and then another and then another, trying to fill in the gaps between them on Google Maps. I hopelessly try to find a thread to help me understand this organically dispersed uprising, and I can’t forget that my body is absent from all those streets, those houses, those prisons. My body is here in another country. My other self is not living in the virtual world anymore, is not a soccer player jumping up and down for joy, the hero of a computer game waving the flag of Iran. My other self, if he is anywhere at all, is stuck between my real body and the real streets that I can only have mediated access to, streets where love and war intertwine, where bodies are not separated from their narratives, where the bodies themselves are the narratives.
© by Moeen Farrokhi. Translation © 2023 by Poupeh Missaghi. All rights reserved.