Pitch gender battles in Iran
According to Iranian law, football stadiums are off bounds to women, renowned Iranian director Jafar Panahi discovered when his daughter once asked if she could come along to a football match with him. This, he told the audience at the 33rd Gent International Film Festival, was the inspiration for his film Offside.
This surreal ban provided Panahi with the springboard to explore issues of gender, equality and the status of women in modern-day Iran in an entertaining, funny and touching storyline.
Speaking through an interpreter, the controversial director talked about the challenges of shooting during an actual match, using first-time non-professional actors, and actually filming in the stadium on the same day as many women were refused entry to watch their national side play.
The film’s plot revolves around the adventures of half a dozen football-mad young women – of varying degrees of confidence and assertiveness – and the antics they employ to sneak into Tehran’s main stadium in order to watch Iran’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain.
Although they were undoubtedly not the only women in the stadium, they were certainly the only ones who got caught. They all disguised themselves as young male soccer fans, except for one who came up with the novel idea of dressing up as an army conscript and even made it into the stands reserved for the forces, which is where she got caught.
The match kicks off and the girls are biding their time in a makeshift holding area on the outer side of the stands awaiting the arrival of the police commander. To a woman, they are itching to watch the action on the football field and implore the soldier in charge to allow them to peek through the gate at the game. Their frustration mounts with every cheer and gasp emitted by the crowd.
The conscript in charge is not interested in football and is deaf to their pleas. When his assistant gets distracted by the match and starts jumping around and yelling advice and commands to the players, the girls convince the hapless young man to give them a running commentary – to hilarious effect.
Manwhile, the only thought on the senior soldier’s one-track mind is his desire to finish the last few weeks of his conscription without any delays brought about through reckless disobedience. One of the more memorable lines of the film is his exacerbated exclamation at the waywardness of those liberal women from the capital: “I don’t understand you Tehran women, one of you wants to join the army and the other wants to play football for the Iranian national side.”
His mantra of returning to his land and animals becomes so ingrained into the young womens’ consciousness that one of them, who managed to give his assistant the slip during a surreal and farcical visit to the evacuated toilets (only men’s toilets are available in the stadium), returns because “I felt sorry for his animals”, she tells the other girls.
And her sympathy for his predicament reveals the complexities of the situation. The young man in the soldier’s uniform is not a bad man. He is well-meaning but simply does not possess the strength of personality, imagination, or intellectual and moral daring to challenge the status quo. His intuitive good nature is revealed in a couple of telling scenes, such as his intervention to stop an angry father from striking his daughter, his borrowing money to buy drinks for all the young women in his charge because one of them complained of being thirsty, and his hanging out of the police van to hold the broken antenna in the optimal position so that the young ladies could listen to the match.
Actually, many of the football fans in the film secretly abetted and assisted the women in their quest to enter the stadium by keeping quite or obstructing one soldier’s path as he chased the girl who escaped from the toilet.
It is this human angle that is often missing from the discourse of western critics of ‘Islam’ and self-proclaimed ‘reformers’. They do not seem to appreciate that many Muslim women, for whatever reasons of social and ideological expectation, regard their status as equal to men’s but different and embrace the hijab and other symbols of faith through conviction and not coercion. Although the growing ranks of Muslim women who do not accept their traditional status have a tough challenge ahead, there are others who are quite happy in their traditional roles and the idea of change actually fills them with apprehension and dread. These critics forget that the relative gender equality in the west was arrived at through a long and painful process, and that societies like Iran need to find their own way along this path.
Under the Shah, Iran told women to dress in western styles. Now the Islamic Republic tells its women to wear the chador. But Iranian society’s attempt to dictate women’s appearance is not only futile and unfair exercise but is doomed to failure. Likewise, western countries should refrain from following France and Turkey’s example and forcing their own dress code on Muslim women. If Muslim women are to discard the veil in all its forms, this has to be done through conviction and not coercion.
Exposing the social contradictions in Iran, the most assertive of the girls asks the soldier-in-chief: “Why is it we are allowed to go to the cinema with men but we are not allowed to come to the football stadium?”
“That’s different,” he protests, not quite sure why. “The stadium is no place for a woman. Football supporters are obscene and swear a lot.”
“Well, the cinema is dark,” the young woman counters, stumping him.
At the end of the day, football proves to be the great equaliser and Iran’s victory over Bahrain is announced as the young women are being driven to the vice squad offices. Caught up in the spontaneous street party, the soldiers and their charges are pulled out by the jubilant crowd and they all let their hair down metaphorically and join in the revelry. The film closes on this high.
This scene echoed Iran’s win over the USA in the 1998 World Cup. “Here was a bold, defiant demonstration of the power of the masses, and of their youth, in the face of rigid authority, and authority had backed down,” wrote American journalist Elaine Sciolino in her book Persian mirrors – the elusive face of Iran. “For one glorious summer night, ordinary Iranians proved themselves capable of bursting out of their lethargy not for God, but for soccer.”
Panahi’s film is currently banned in Iran but, he confessed smilingly, it has done very well on the unofficial underground circuit. He also hoped that, like other one-time controversial films, the censor would one day allow it to be shown in cinemas.
To my mind, Panahi, in his sympathetic and unorthodox cinematic treatment of women and the tough challenges they face in contemporary Iran, is the Almodovar of Iranian cinema – minus the explicit sex and transsexuals.
Nevertheless, that does not mean he shies away from questions of sexuality, as his 2000 film Dayreh (The Circle) clearly demonstrates. In it, he follows the lives and destinies of several down-and-out women trying to survive on the margins of the man’s world of Iranian society. Several of the women are former, current or escaped prison inmates. Prostitution and sexual exploitation make up a central theme of this dark film, with some characters forced by their circumstances to trade sexual favours or wrongly accused of prostitution for being out alone late at night.
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