I wrote this article for the Football Blogging Awards...
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Iran's Sexist Football Issues
Think back to your earliest football memory, the first time you watched a game on TV, in the stands, or the first time you kick a ball...
For me, it was aged five, I got my first ever full kit with my brothers. Unfortunately, it was a Manchester United replica and my mother had to sew the badges on. We spent all our childhood freely playing at the local parks from sunrise to sunset. As for spectating, it wasn't until I was 7 years old that I vaguely recall watching England playing at Euro 1996. My first real memories of live football on TV though, were from the 1998 France World Cup. I'll never forget Ronaldo and Brazil were immense, there was the legend that is Zidane, and of course, Michael Owen's wonder goal against Argentina. Wow! I had never seen such excitement and passion, such skill and team spirit over that magical tournament. The chance to watch a professional match didn't come until I was 14, Middlesbrough vs Arsenal in the Premier League. I had formed a new friendship at high school in North Yorkshire, with Hannah, she was a Boro season ticket holder (in fact she still is to this day, even in their current decline). She promised that she'd always take me to Arsenal games when they were playing up north, it was like a dream come true. And so she did, although it didn't last long, as a few years later Middlesbrough were relegated and since haven't returned to the top flight.
But never mind, I've managed to see plenty more games since then, including over in America and more recently at the Olympics. I still have souvenir pictures, ticket stubs and matchday programmes from them all. But more importantly, it's the memories that last forever-walking through turnstiles, climbing the steps with fellow supporters, soaking up the atmosphere in the crowd. Nothing beats the real thing, seeing your heroes in the flesh and witnessing your team play through 90 minutes of the game you love. Due to the general costs of matchday experiences, I've never made it a regular occurrence to go to live games. I'd much rather be down the pub on a Saturday afternoon winding up the locals with my football "banter" and watching all the scores come in. But no matter where you watch football, as long as you have a love for the game, you go through the trials and tribulations of being a fan. The tearing out of your hair when your team loses or jumping on the furniture when your team scores. Nothing beats those moments of passion, sharing it with others and doing it all over again the next weekend. That's my brief recollection of a growing passion for the beautiful game, the experiences I've had so far and no doubt millions of fans like me around the world have their own unique stories I'm sure.
Football is the most popular sport in the world and unites people of all backgrounds. But what about those people not as fortunate as ourselves? Those people who have to fight for the privilege of playing? Those people who are beaten for wanting to enjoy the same sport that the rest of us take for granted? The story I want to share with you, is that of Iranian women.
Speaking to the BBC, Nasrin Afzali says: "We are part of the nation - so we should participate in these national celebrations." She has been involved in campaigning since she was a university student 10 years ago. Once, she managed to smuggle her way into the national football stadium to watch a game. Another time she was not so lucky - and says she was detained and beaten for handing out leaflets.
Some women have gone to the extent of dressing as men to try and sneak into stadiums. Film director, Jafar Panahi, illustrates these struggles in the 2006 comedy film 'Offside'. The film was inspired by Panahi's daughter who attended a game and screening of the film wasn't allowed in Iran. On April 24th 2008, President Ahmadinejad ordered the ban to be lifted on women attending football games, however this decision later got reversed by other senior figures. Four years later, Iran hosted the Asian Football Confederation U-16 championships in 2012, which gave women the chance to go along and watch matches due to AFC rules against discrimination amongst spectators based on gender.
More recently, FIFA president Sepp Blatter spoke up regarding the matter after a two day trip to Tehran. Prior to the visit in November 2013, Iranians used the hashtag #IRWomenStadium to get in touch with Blatter via social media, requesting that he raised the issues with authorities in Iran. Speaking afterwards he further added: "You have developed so much women's football here, that it should say that women also can go to the stadium."
It's not the first time FIFA have had involvement with Iranian football. The women's team were were briefly banned in 2011 for wearing Hijabs. The national team have again been in the media spotlight in February 2014, after it was revealed that four players in their women's team were actually men. The Iran professional women's league now have to carry out random gender verification tests on players. Women's football is becoming increasingly popular in Iran ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979. More has been done since to develop the sport within the country, including organised amateur competitions and now the national team competes at an international level. Although there is still room to improve, as female players are still not allowed to train on pitches of good quality, even the 40,000 seater Azadiye Stadium that was being built for the women's national team, due to be completed in 2009, remains unfinished.
Iran isn't the only country to have these issues, however recent media coverage is raising awareness and it can only be a positive step forward for women's rights and football. Think back to my request at the top of this page.....those football memories you have. Millions of children across the globe never get those memories, especially females. I refer to previous articles I've wrote such as 'The Mighty girls' and 'The Beautiful game' which highlight the levels of abuse, discrimination and poverty that women in deprived countries face. Their common escape from all these problems is the joy that being able to enjoy participating and watching football brings them. So the next time you see one of these articles or petitions fighting for the rights of those worse off from yourself, please read and share it. You never know who you might be helping and what positive effect you may be having on someone else's life.