The Long Arm of the Morals Police Iran Cancels Women's Football Game in Berlin

A celebration of women's football was planned for this Friday when Iranian and German players were to face each other in Berlin. But at the last minute the Iranians pulled out -- leaving the Berlin hosts scratching their heads about why the game ended before it even began.


Iranian and German football players during last year's match in Tehran.

Iranian and German football players during last year's match in Tehran.

The women of Kreuzberg's Aldersimspor football team had been preparing for this day for two years. But in the end it was all for naught. The plan was to play a match against the Iranian women's national team this Friday in Berlin. It would have been the first game by Iranian women in the West since the Islamic revolution of 1979. "Yesterday at 10 p.m. an official e-mail came from the Iranian Football Federation," says Marlene Assmann, one of the organizers. The game was called off, due to "technical problems."

"We are totally disappointed," says Assmann. The 26-year-old plays for BSV Aldersimspor -- a team whose players have Turkish, German, Korean, Greek and Tunisian backgrounds, and which is fifth in the Berlin league. She knew from the very beginning that it wasn’t just an ordinary football match. But she didn’t realize just what political ramifications her intercultural adventure would take on.

Assmann, a film student, and her twin sister Valerie are the driving forces behind the whole project. Together with their other sister Corinna and a cousin Friederike, they set up the multi-cultural football team in Berlin's Kreuzberg district.

On Thursday they held a press conference in the Berlin Football Federation's headquarters, and attempted to explain something they don't really understand themselves. They have only two words to work with: "technical problems," otherwise it's all guesswork.

Iran's crackdown on women

One thing is certain: They couldn’t have chosen a worse time for the return match -- the first game between the two sides took place in Tehran last year. Over the past few weeks reprisals against women in Iran have increased significantly. The annual spring campaign by the guardians of morals is much stricter than in previous years, Iranian exiles in Germany report. In the spring, as the weather gets much hotter, the Iranian police are out in force to find women who do not adhere to the official clothing restrictions. "Coats, headscarves and trousers are getting shorter every year," says Reza Sorki, chair of the Iranian cultural association Dehkoda in Berlin. "So this year the morals police have set up a brand new unit."

Whoever is caught and resists has to reckon with force -- the women are usually arrested. At the end of last week, Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, the country's parliament in exile, sent an open letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, asking him to "condemn the violent wave of suppression of Iranian women and youths." The arrest of the Iranian-American academic Haleh Esfandiari in mid May in Tehran is just the latest incident. The Iranian authorities have been cracking down on the country's burgeoning feminist movement for months, arresting dozens of women's rights activists for compromising "national security." The increased repression has prompted the German newspaper Die Zeit, to suggest that the Islamic Republic has "declared war on women."

"We really wanted to prove one thing," says Marlene Assmann: "That it is completely normal for women to play football." Only a few days ago she had said it was important to the Iranian Football Federation, that there was a return game. "They were more afraid that we might not honor the commitment." From the very beginning the project has been a kind of obstacle course, both matches had to be postponed several times due to visa problems. For the players, waiting for the matches has been as gruelling as sitting in the changing rooms at half time. In February 2007, the Iranian football authorities finally gave the final green light.

The entire adventure began back in February 2005. Assmann was at the Berlin Film Festival -- she had entered a short film, "The Way is the Game," about her multicultural team. The Iranian director Ayat Najafi was also in Berlin, showing a short film about Iranian women's football. The two very different filmmakers hatched a plan to get the two teams together and to shoot a documentary about the project. "Football Under Cover," is the working title -- they wanted to edit it this September. But now the film will missing the footage of the Iranians in Berlin.

The first game took place on April 28, 2006 and was the first proper match the Iranian women had ever played against other footballers and in front of fans. The players -- one side in red the other in white -- all played with specially designed sports headscarves. Only women were allowed into the stadium, and they all screamed their lungs out -- the result was 2:2. Normally the female players are only allowed to train in sports halls -- and without an audience. And Iran's many female football fans are not allowed into stadiums. (In 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared women could watch football in special sections but he was quickly overruled by the country's religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)

Iranian Exiles Planned a Demonstration

"I'm not surprised by the cancellation," says Nasrin Wassiri. The women's rights activist fled her native Iran 23 years ago and now works as a freelance journalist for Berlin's Radio Multikulti station. She thinks the "technical problem" is just an excuse. "Iran is afraid that the opposition could use the game to protest against the Iranian government." And she is right, Iranian women exiles had announced a demonstration to take place before the game kicked off on Friday, to call attention to the situation of women in Iran. A group of 50 people had already announced they would demonstrate, says Silke Gülker, spokeswoman for the Kreuzberg team. "But they had no intention of interrupting the game," says Wassiri. "The women wanted to go into the stadium afterwards and cheer on the Iranians."

Sorki, of the Dehkoda cultural association, says he had told the Berlin organizers last week of his fears. "There were many voices in Iran that were against this game. It has been a thorn in the side of the Iranian government." But Wassiri thinks the demonstration was just one of the reasons. "The Berlin players wanted to play without wearing headscarves, in shorts, and men were to be allowed into the stadium. They didn’t really give careful consideration to what that means." Sorki says that this was "absolutely ok," as these are the "German rules." And spokeswoman Silke Gülker explains that these conditions were all communicated to the Iranians. "The Iranians knew this from the beginning, and it was, after all, clear where the game was being played."

Then there was the problem of the flags: Which Iranian flags would be allowed into the stadium? The official flag of the Islamic Republic has the word "Allah" on a white stripe in the center. "There are also flags with Iran written on them, or no writing, or even some with a peace dove," Assmann explains. Even the dove could have been interpreted as an affront to the Iranian embassy. There was so much pressure on the young Berlin women, that for the past few weeks they have felt like they were walking on eggshells.

Now everything has gone wrong before it even began. And they don’t know why. They only know what the Iranian embassy is telling them and what they have heard from the Iranian players, who sent them e-mails saying the game would only be postponed for a week. Then the vice president of the Iranian Football Federation said that it would be four to six weeks, while the embassy mentioned two or three. "The line is: It is postponed, not cancelled," Assmann says. "We know one thing for sure: It won't be taking place next week."

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