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Forbidden Love: On the Muslim Women Who Fought for Their Right to Play Futsal

“Many of the women desperate to play had seen the game snatched away from them as children.”

Shahrzad Mozafar is a young girl sitting in her bedroom, dreaming. Sheltering from the sun that beats down on her parched neighborhood in Khuzestan province, south-western Iran, she’s in full escapism mode, doing what she loves. Outside the four walls of her suburban home, the revolution that dethroned the Shah has also thrown the country—and families like Shahrzad’s—into a turmoil that will lead to a bloody and prolonged war with neighboring Iraq.

On this particular day, though, Shahrzad is seeking solace in the love of her life: football. It’s a love that’s forbidden, according to the prohibitive strictures imposed by the newly powerful conservative clerics heading the Islamic Republic. When she’s not kicking a ball about with her sisters in her family garden, she’s inside watching football on television.

Often doing what she’s doing this very day: dreaming football dreams, her mind playing games through so she can commentate on the figurative action, her every word of dramatic monologue captured on tape with a small cassette recorder. It’s an outlet for a sport-crazy girl who turned eight at the height of the 1978–9 revolution, a secret indulgence in a country where modesty laws preclude millions of females from any sporting activity by insisting on the wearing of the headscarf in public.

To her parents, it was no great surprise. They knew she was obsessed. “When my father listened, he loved it,” Mozafar recalls, nearly four decades on. “He asked me how I could do it without watching any game and just by imagining!” Her proud parents kept the tape for years, eagerly playing it for visitors whenever they could. It was their “fantastic” support that fanned the flames of her clandestine love affair with football—one that eventually led to a transformative career in futsal that elevates Mozafar as a twenty-first century role model for women in the Islamic world.

After she blazed a trail coaching the first Iran women’s football team—“being pioneer of anything that didn’t exist before is not easy”—she led the nation’s futsal team to the 2018 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) women’s title, gaining nominations above esteemed male tacticians for best coach in the world along the way. Mozafar then moved on to lead Kuwait’s national women’s futsal team and sat proudly in 2019 as the only female coaching instructor in FIFA and the AFC, championing the cause of the women’s game from within.

Shahrzad is seeking solace in the love of her life: football. It’s a love that’s forbidden, according to the prohibitive strictures imposed by the newly powerful conservative clerics heading the Islamic Republic.

Her life charts the course of sporting history in a country synonymous with clashes between faith and culture. Her back story intertwines with the roots of women’s football and futsal, and the growth of the sports in areas of the world where passion flowered too vibrantly to be suppressed. Her journey also highlights futsal’s specific role in the stubborn rise of women’s sport in Iran, the Middle East and the wider Muslim world. For Mozafar, the resistance she symbolizes started early. “The passion of football was born with me,” she explains. “I loved football. From the beginning. I have been looking for a ball my whole life. I can remember watching the World Cup in 1982 in Spain. I cried all night when Brazil lost against Italy.”

Mozafar was not alone. A more collective form of female resistance dismantled a huge and significant barrier in 1993, a little over a decade after the political earthquake had deposed the Shah and imposed faith-led restrictions on female sporting activity.

The game-changers were the sport-mad students at Alzahra University in Tehran, the only all-women university in the country. They decided enough was enough. Amid soaring numbers of women becoming educated in the Islamic Republic, the students brought more than a decade of forced abstinence to a halt by compelling the university’s administrators to allow a groundbreaking unofficial futsal tournament that attracted nine other college teams. It was nothing short of a cultural revolution that revived female sport.

Just like Mozafar, many of the women desperate to play had seen the game snatched away from them as children. The early 1970s had brought girls on to the streets playing alongside boys, with the female game gaining formal acceptance when one of Tehran’s biggest clubs, Taj Football Club, started officially training women.

The abrupt end to this momentum post-revolution was reflected in the decision by the new government’s Physical Education Organization to take control of the club and change its name from the monarchist Taj, which means “crown” in Persian, to Esteghlal, which translates as “independence.” The club’s first-team success continued on the pitch, but the women’s game was relegated to the periphery. The downturn continued until the Alzahra women intervened.

Just like Mozafar, many of the women desperate to play had seen the game snatched away from them as children.

By 1997, the powerful Physical Education Organization had formed a futsal committee that eventually sanctioned an official female universities futsal competition involving more than a hundred students in twelve teams. “For authorities, futsal was a palatable solution for women,” writes Timothy F. Grainey in his book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham: The Global Phenomenon of Women’s Soccer. “They could play in an indoor facility where men could easily be locked out. In this way university officials and players were not contravening sharia law.”

For Mozafar, it’s been a lifetime of overcoming obstacles in a nation where football and futsal were forbidden for her from the age of eight to twenty-eight. She pursued the game wherever she could. “When I was a kid and watching the football games on television, I wasn’t just a viewer,” she recalls. “I liked to discuss the games after they finished with my friends and cousins for many hours. I loved to be a coach since I was a kid.”

Her experience of Iran’s national pastime of street football, gol koochik, which means “small goal” in Persian, brought despair and hope in equal measure. The revolution might have stopped her playing, but it did not halt gol koochik. Nor did the subsequent war with Saddam Hussein’s US-backed Iraqi regime, a conflict estimated to have killed at least one million people.

Mozafar describes the scene on the dusty streets of cities such as the capital, Tehran, not too dissimilar to the one I lived out in north Liverpool at the time, almost 3,000 miles away. “Many boys were playing,” she remembers. “In that time the big cities in Iran were not too crowded and you could find some calm streets. They made a goal with bricks or stones and sometimes used parked cars as a goal. If the ball went under the car, it was a goal. The plastic ball they used to play with was made for children… it was a toy, actually. So because it was very light, they cut it with a knife to make a slot then they put another one inside to make it heavy and call it two-layers ball. If they were so professional, they made three-layers ball!

Her back story intertwines with the roots of women’s football and futsal, and the growth of the sports in areas of the world where passion flowered too vibrantly to be suppressed.

“They would play two-v-two, three-v-three, four-v-four, etc. In some neighborhoods, this was more serious and they painted the street to indicate the dimensions and also made small goals with metal. They also held tournaments in their neighborhoods and would invite teams from other areas to play. They had lots of spectators, including me.”

Watching wasn’t enough though. She craved playing, and once her family relocated to Tehran for safety when she was a teenager at the height of the war, she found an outlet—and a further safe haven—in an alternative sport: volleyball. She represented the national team for a decade from the age of eighteen until futsal started in earnest, quitting volleyball for her first love—while fully aware that, at twenty-nine, she was too old to start a new life as a player.

Coaching offered the solution. In the early 2000s—“we had no football yet, just futsal”—she immersed herself in tactics and learning as head coach with various clubs while assisting the coach for the national women’s futsal team, which played its first match in October 2001.

In 2005, she received a shock offer to drop futsal and lead the newly formed Iran national football team, which had been invited to the West Asian Football Games by Jordan—which was also initiating a women’s team. Although the Tehran club Taj had run a club side as a de facto national team in the mid-1970s, this would be Iran’s first truly national team.

Daunted at first, Mozafar was soon persuaded by Khadejeh Sepanji, the head of women’s football in the Iran Football Federation. It was a rollercoaster ride. “I was thirty-five, with no football coaching background, and there was no football league or any other football activities. In other words, we didn’t have any football players.”

With just weeks to put together a squad, she followed her instincts and recruited the futsal players she knew. “They couldn’t even make long and high passes because they had never played on grass before,” she admits.

But after a few intensive training sessions, the first Iranian women’s football team made it to the Games, clinching the runners-up spot behind the hosts, Jordan, after beating Syria, Bahrain and Palestine. “This was the beginning of the road of football in my country,” she says. During the next five years, she combined club futsal with her national football duties, winning five titles with various futsal teams in the popular new national league.

The Games came about once Hashemi widened her gaze, seeking to allow athletes in Muslim countries to sample the international competition forbidden due to the strict dress codes.

The successful 2010 mission to the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore proved to be her last footballing foray. After leading the national team to fourth place, and earning a nomination from AFC for the best coach in Asia, she was lured into the national futsal team set-up, a decision forced upon her when the Iranian Football Federation ordered her to choose between the two sports. It was not the most difficult decision, she says. “Iran was pioneer in futsal in Asia,” she says, whereas in football it was lagging way behind its Asian rivals. “So I decided to focus on futsal and let my dreams come true through it.”

Mozafar’s driving passion to further the cause of Muslim sportswomen in Iran is shared by Faezeh Hashemi, the daughter of one of the founding fathers of the republic, Akbar Rafsanjani. In the same year that the students at Alzhara University made their futsal breakthrough, Hashemi confirmed her reputation as a strident champion of women’s rights by initiating the Women’s Islamic Games.

While her father, seen as a pragmatist among the throng of hardline Islamic conservatives vying for power, was running the country as fourth president of the republic, the outspoken Hashemi was busy pitching for women’s rights, increasing access for women keen to swim, play tennis and golf. One of her early successes was helping create female bike paths in the capital’s parks.

The Games came about once Hashemi widened her gaze, seeking to allow athletes in Muslim countries to sample the international competition forbidden due to the strict dress codes. As head of the Islamic Women’s Sports Federation, and a prominent member of the Iranian parliament, she founded a women’s newspaper (it was closed down after a year) and initiated a more sustained era of female sporting participation in the Muslim world. Futsal played a significant part in the breakthrough.

Introduced for the 2001 Islamic Games—the same year the first female university league kicked off—futsal was included in the schedule once again in 2005, the last time the Games were held. In 2018, the Iranian minister of sports and youth affairs, Masoud Soltanifar, announced his desire to restart the Games. For Hashemi, the dogged activism continued: the perpetual thorn in the side of the conservative hardliners was jailed for six months in 2012, after being found guilty of spreading anti-regime propaganda.

*

Rimla Akhtar is another Muslim woman responsible for pushing back boundaries in the Islamic world. Unlike Mozafar and Hashemi, she is not a daughter of the Islamic Republic. Born to Pakistani parents in west London, Akhtar was a nineteen-year-old Imperial College London chemistry student in 2001 when she donned her futsal shoes to play for Great Britain, the first non-Muslim nation to compete in the Hashemi-inspired Women’s Islamic Games. She was one of a nineteen British athletes out in Iran competing in futsal and badminton.

Organized by Muslim News, a London-based publication catering for the British Muslim community, the players were given £2,000 by the UK Foreign Office towards the cost of the kit. Britain was one of twenty-five countries taking part, the original total of forty nations having dwindled in the weeks before the tournament due to security concerns in the region, in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Against a backdrop of violent conflict and angst fueled by religious fundamentalism, the British team embarked on a mission to bust stereotypes about Muslim women and sport.

Akhtar spoke at the time of her pride at representing Britain. “It’s great that Muslim women can get together like this. It’s against all the stereotypes that everyone has about us.” Shaheen Mohammed, another British player, had to take time off from her role as an analyst with a London law firm to play. “We are very lucky to be here,” she told the Guardian at the time. “It’s all about participation. Many Muslims don’t have access to this kind of event.” Nearly a decade later, Akhtar would play an instrumental part in another historic moment for Muslim women in sport.

Against a backdrop of violent conflict and angst fueled by religious fundamentalism, the British team embarked on a mission to bust stereotypes about Muslim women and sport.

On this occasion the groundswell of dissent from the grassroots was matched by convulsions of outrage at the top of the Islamic government. The object of the collective derision? FIFA. Specifically, its decision in 2007 to ban the hijab—a potent symbol of Islamic life for women that was worn while playing sport to meet the strict Islamic dress code laws meaning they must have all their skin covered. Tracksuit bottoms, long-sleeved shirts and the hijab, or headscarf, allowed girls and women to submit to the lawmakers while indulging their passion for the game.

FIFA’s hugely controversial order came about after Asmahan Mansour, an eleven-year-old Canadian girl from Ontario, was told by a referee at a tournament in the Québécois city of Laval that the covering was not allowed on the pitch. FIFA upheld the impromptu ruling as an official ban on the grounds that “religious symbolism” was outlawed in sport.

Once the justification was smashed by citing the widespread display of religious tattoos and crucifixes on football fields in both the men’s and women’s game, FIFA rowed back—but maintained the ruling, recalibrating its reasoning as a health and safety concern instead. The ban killed off many footballing dreams, including those of the Iran female football team, who forfeited their chance to make the 2012 London Olympics by pulling out of a qualification match after they were stopped from wearing Islamic headgear. Meanwhile, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, voiced the growing frustration with FIFA by branding the federation’s decision-makers “dictators and colonialists” for their actions.

By then chair of the UK’s Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation, Rimla Akhtar fought hard to overturn the ban, calling it “one of my proudest moments,” and proceeded to gain a place on the English FA’s influential council, where she can bang the drum for Muslim male and female participation in football and futsal while rejoicing, as a Liverpool FC fan, in the presence of Mo Salah as a Muslim role model at the top of the Premier League. The pressure brought to bear over the hijab ban by Akhtar and many other campaigners over several years eventually told, with FIFA finally relenting in 2014. Three years later the journey from outlawed garb to fully customizable fashionable kit accessory was complete when Nike launched its own range of hijab complete with fetching trademark swoosh.

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Futsal_Jamie Fahey

Futsal by Jamie Fahey is available from Melville House

Jamie Fahey
Jamie Fahey
Jamie Fahey is a Guardian journalist and production editor who has also been involved with futsal for nearly two decades, both as player and coach. He is the paper’s primary reporter on the sport and considered a world expert. Futsal is his first book.





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