Out of the Game - Mixed Reactions to the Ban of Seven Female Iranian Footballers for ‘Gender Ambiguity’

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On February 6, the Iranian Football Federation announced that it had imposed a ban on seven female football players as a result of their ‘ambiguous gender’. The head of the Football Federation, Ahmad Hashemian stated that: “This is not a case based on the short-term use of illegal drugs. [The players] have been banned as a result of gender ambiguity,” going on to say that “If these individuals are able to resolve their problems through [sex reassignment] surgery and the proper medical procedures, they will once again be permitted to take part in football and futsal games.”

Such a policy is emblematic of Iranian authorities’ stance on both women’s sport, and the politics of gender identity: any non-conventional expressions of gender identity are stamped out, and those individuals expressing such gender non-conformity are often subjected to mockery, bullying and exclusion by sports facilities, medical professionals, and members of society at large.

The Football Federation stated that the athletes disqualified included individuals born male who had not completed gender transitioning procedures, as well as others who were described as suffering from ‘sexual development disorders’. Further details were not provided.

In order to gain some insights into the sorts of responses ordinary Iranians had to this news story, we monitored the discussions taking place on the BBC Persian news commentary programme Nowbate Shoma, and social media sites, and present our findings to you now.

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Some users seemed to assume that the women footballers were excluded as a result of taking testosterone hormones, and expressed concern that the players in question were attempting to use illegal drugs in order to gain a competitive edge. Shirin from Tehran called into Nowbate Shoma with this message, stating that Iranian sportswomen have a tendency to suffer from psychological problems, and should be provided with counselling in order to maintain their femininity:

“I’ve been playing football for six years, and I’ve observed in a number of teams that some girls attempt to increase their strength through the use of testosterone hormones. I think that the football federation, instead of enforcing tough regulations against these girls, should bring psychologists to the teams to teach the sportswomen that there is no need to have a boyish appearance to continue playing such sports.”

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Though she did not discount the possibility of doping being a contributing factor in the ban, Ida from Sweden was more critical of the Football Federation’s ill-defined and irrational guidelines, which she warned could have an impact on any women whose appearance was deemed ‘unfeminine’ in the eyes of their coaches:

“Honestly, I am not 100% opposed to these rules - I’ve seen in Iran that some girls use male hormones, and it is not fair that they should play in the same matches as the other players. But such vague and generalised rules wrongly allow everyone with a boyish appearance to be filtered out from the teams.”

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The well-known Iranian sports journalist Mehdi Rostampour attempted to steer the conversation away from doping allegations, arguing that it was unlikely that the disqualified footballers were barred by the Football Federation for taking performance-enhancing drugs. Instead, he considered that the decisions were made as a result of officials’ ignorance and prejudice against those who do not conform to conventional gender expectations:

“Testosterone is one of the most consumed hormones in Iranian sport, and so is considered as a form of doping, unrelated to this formal categorisation of ‘sexual ambiguity’. But ‘boyish appearance’ is completely undefinable. In men’s sport also, some people will say that an athlete has a ‘girlish appearance’ - I think we should go move on from these sorts of issues nowadays.”

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This point was taken up by a caller, Mahshid from Tehran, who criticised the Football Federation for using vague, subjective rules to embarrass and discourage women from taking part in sport:

“The problem is in the ambiguity of Mr. Hashemian’s words. If consumption of testosterone is considered to be doping, then they should say clearly that these athletes have committed doping, and that the results of their drug tests were positive. But he has instead emphasized that none of these athletes failed a doping test, and that the issue was their ‘sexual ambiguity’! The impact of such rulings on women’s sport will be to discourage women and push them away from sporting activity. Even now, women athletes engage in sport only as a result of great courage, and still endure numerous problems.”

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Mansour from Germany offered his own unique perspective as a transgender Iranian, and came out in support of the ban of the women athletes, comparing the position of Iranian transgender athletes with their German counterparts:

I have to explain this from my own experiences, because I am transgender. When they are able, transsexual people start their hormone therapy, which causes some physical transformations, such as a change in their voice - the same thing happened to me. It also increases physical strength. So it is fair that they could not play in the women’s team. In Germany, one can only obtain a male ID after surgery and hormone therapy, and it is normal that the individual cannot join a women’s team. Even Germany’s athletics champion gave up sport after starting hormone therapy.

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As well as comments made during the airing of Nowbate Shoma, a number of Iranians left comments on the show’s Facebook page, discussing the issue.

A number of Facebook users appeared sympathetic to the plight of the athletes in question:

Zari: This ‘sexual ambiguity’ was not their fault - why should they be banned from doing something in which they are successful!?

Maryam: But these people are without sin, they are God’s creatures, and didn’t have any choice [in being who they are].

Sam: But what should these people do, who are not completely man or woman? With whom should they play and train?

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Others were less sympathetic, expressing themselves in terms that ranged from ignorant, through to overtly homophobic and transphobic:

Ehsan: “I think it is a good decision, since some of these two-sexed people have bodies like men, and even after surgery they still have male hormones in their bodies, and male strength. So they’d have advantages over women, which is unfair in sport!”

Mitra: “I am a coach and referee in futsal, and I’ve observed that the rate of queers is very high in these sports. I think it was a good decision [to ban the athletes].”

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More common, however, were comments that interpreted the Football Federation’s disqualification of these women as symptomatic of systemic and pervasive discrimination against women in sport, putting aside questions of targeted discrimination against transgender and intersex Iranians:

Nas: These are just crazy excuses. I was banned from playing in the League because of my short hair.

Shadi: In Iran [the government] sees no value in women’s sport, and now they use this excuse to make it easier to ban women.

Tuba: Shame on Iranian men, that women must play in this outfit [referring to the hijab], and are not allowed to go and watch the football games that they’d like. Now women are gradually being eliminated from the sport on the basis of ridiculous reasons, and men don’t bother to react. Shame on them.

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The Iranian Football Federation has since announced that gender tests are to be made mandatory for all women footballers at the national level, Hashemian stating that clubs have a responsibility to submit all new signings to gender tests before finalising any contracts.

Such a move will only serve to discourage young Iranian women from taking part in sport at a professional level, with transgender players, as well as women suffering from medical conditions such as androgen insensitivity syndrome particularly vulnerable to being hounded out of the world of professional women’s sport.

The problematic nature of these gender tests is still largely perceived in terms of the state’s hostility towards women’s sports in general, rather than as a targeted attack on transgender and intersex Iranians. Though it is impossible to assess the precise intent behind the Iranian Football Federation’s new policy, such regressive practices threaten the position of both women and sexual minorities in the world of Iranian professional sport, and should be challenged.

Though a number of Iranian commentators expressed explicit support for the affected athletes, there remains a great deal of work left to do in constructing a meaningful dialogue around the issues facing LGBTIQ sportspeople in Iran. The discussion provoked by Nowbate Shoma remains, however, an important first step.