Cinema | Iranian women, in Panahi’s film, move beyond a boundary

The trailer from Offside. Panahi’s feature received a limited U.S. release in Los Angeles and New York on Mar 23. (Copyright © 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)

Toward the end of an extraordinary interview with Dorna Khazeni in LA Weekly, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi asks his interlocutor if she understands the fundamental metaphor driving the film Offside.

“Wait, do you even know what an offside is in soccer?” he asks.

“No, not really. I just know it’s a soccer term,” I reply.

“See, I knew it! I should have given you a list of questions to ask me.”


Panahi explains how football’s offside rule correlates with his film work. His films “are constructed around the notion of restriction, limitation, confinement and boundaries.” Similarly, the women in Offside—Panahi’s 2006 production now receiving limited American release—have “entered a forbidden space before the law has given them permission to do so. They don’t have that permission yet, but they’ve gone ahead and entered the territory anyway. They’ve overturned the rules” (“The Beautiful Game,” Mar 21).

The origins of Panahi’s new movie, his fifth full-length feature to have gained international distribution, date to Iran’s second qualification for a World Cup finals, in 1998. During celebrations, some 5,000 women entered the stadium, prompting reflection about state policy barring women at other times. Also, Panahi recalled his daughter’s attempts to sneak into a football match when she was 12. Prevented from entering, she was sitting at her father’s side within 10 minutes. Asked how, she said, “Where there’s a will there’s a way” (see “Jafar Panahi on Offside,”, Mar 7).

Such has been the experience of women in Iran who since the establishment of the Islamic republic in 1979 have faced a labyrinth of restrictions, including the de facto ban on watching men play sport in public spaces. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad‘s attempt to nullify the ban in Apr 06 was overturned by clerics two weeks later. So, over years, women have resorted to political statement and artifice, disguising themselves as men, to gain entry to Azadi (Freedom) Stadium, the 90,000-capacity sport palace in Iran’s capital, Tehran.

Women have been arrested, and a well-known activist, Mahboubeh Abbass-Gholizadeh, had her leg broken by a stadium gate during protests at the match that forms the mise-en-scéne for Offside: a World Cup qualifier versus Bahrain on 8 Jun 05. Iran’s 1–0 victory clinched its appearance in the 2006 finals in Germany. The non-professional actors who play the female protagonists in Offside—they are primarily students from Tehran University—opt for the secretive approach by wearing oversized clothes, feature-cloaking hats and, in one case, a policeman’s uniform. They are rounded up and watched by a ragtag police detail, who are dragged into debates about the ethics of preventing the women from entry but who are more interested in seeing the game themselves.

True to the style of neo-realism that he assimilated in tutelage to Abbas Kiarostami, Panafi stages much of his film at the match, incorporating crowds and sounds at the giant Tehran stadium. The digital camera, chosen over 35mm so that the filmmakers would not draw attention to what they were doing, does not show snippets of game action to respect the women whose view was similarly restricted. Panahi tells Khazeni:

The space of the stadium itself is masculine space. Then there’s the holding pen where the young women are held. Women are banned from the one and men from the other. I decided the camera had to be placed on the outside of the fence and could not enter either space. Because it can’t enter the space and move between the girls, there can’t be any dialogue amongst the girls. The camera can’t disclose their characters to the viewer in the way it would if it could enter their space.

Women, despite being turned away from Azadi Stadium on 1 Mar 06, before a friendly versus Costa Rica, show patriotic spirit. Photographer Noushin Najafi on her website includes a series of images of protesters denied entry on 8 Jun 05, the day of Panahi’s filming. Some 200 women brandishing white scarves—they are known as the “White Scarf Girls”—successfully forced their way in for the second half. (Copyright © 2006 Noushin Najafi)

Panahi’s satirical vision raises the myriad of questions that women in Iran have asked about their absurd reality. How, in the name of devotion to country and faith, could they be denied the right to join with others in a patriotic act of support? Why are they forbidden to watch footballers at the stadium when watching on television is permissible? Why are women of other countries—from the Republic of Ireland and Japan, for example, for previous World Cup qualifying matches—permitted entry to Azadi Stadium and they are not? The fictional policemen in Panahi’s film address this last question, if dismissively. Japanese women do not understand Farsi, therefore they are permitted. One of the Iranian women in the holding pen responds, “My problem is I was born in Iran?”

One could raise the question about the women themselves: Why do they work so hard to celebrate a country that represses them? To this, Panahi answers that “the girls want to be a part of the world community. … There’s a need to assert this reality, that we’re not as different from the rest of the world as we’re being made out to be. Accept us.”

Panahi’s own travels have taught him that Iran does not hold a monopoly on denying the simplest of human rights. On 15 Apr 01, en route to Buenos Aires from Hong Kong, Panahi was arrested at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York for lack of a transit visa and was held in handcuffs and leg irons, chained to a bench for 10 hours for refusing to be fingerprinted. Similar bureaucratic nightmares have confronted fellow Middle Eastern filmmakers attempting to enter the United States. Recently, Saudi filmmaker Abdullah al-Muheisin was denied entry for the New York Arab and South Asian Film Festival; the festival director intentionally shied away from inviting Iranian directors such as Kiarostami, Panahi and Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf (Amitabh Pal, “U.S. Visa Policy Inhumane and Counterproductive,” The Progressive, Mar 8). The absurdity is clear. Artists who, like Panahi, see their mission as depicting “humanitarian events … in a poetic and artistic way,” are denied the basic human consideration of freedom of movement. “I’m guilty of the crime of being Iranian,” Panahi says.

Safar Samandar plays the role of the Azeri policeman. With his fellows, he bars the women from entry so they will not hear rowdy language. “Let us in,” one of the women responds. “We promise not to listen.” (Copyright © 2006 Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc.)

One sees how Panahi has channeled such frustration, including his battles with censors and restrictive cinema authorities in Iran, into films such as Offside. Characters in his film are regarded generously, even the police arresting the women at the Iran-Bahrain qualifier. One of the policemen hails from Azerbaijan and reveals an irritation at his job “when he feels he should be watching over his father’s sheep.” He agrees to have periodic (inaccurate) match commentary provided for everyone’s benefit. As critic Cynthia Fuchs writes about the characters, “None of them is where he or she wants to be” (“Offside,”

Panahi sees his films’ characters as trying to escape boundaries, to break through a “closed circle.” The metaphor became explicit in The Circle (2000), concerning the seemingly never-ending cycle of societal restrictions, from birth to death, confronting Iranian women. The motif of the circle in Panahi’s work extends to the cinematic form of plan-séquence, uninterrupted takes several minutes in length that enforce the idea of boundaries. Even the filmmaker, through editing and splicing to create new reality, does not tamper with the time line and space limitations that help define existence (see Stephen Teo, “The Case of Jafar Panahi,” Senses of Cinema, Jun 01). In Offside, a plan-séquence follows one of the girls as she is escorted to a stadium bathroom—naturally, a men’s room. She is forced to wear a makeshift mask to protect her from reading the virulent bathroom graffiti.

Within the film’s broader narrative, Panahi makes clear that he let the outcome of the football match determine the course of Offside. “What if Iran had lost?” asks Panahi in the LA Weekly interview. He suggests that defeat to Bahrain would have derailed the film’s cathartic finish—scenes of wild street celebrations in which women are involved—and made him scrap the idea entirely. “It was soccer,” Panahi says, “that imposed the new vision on me and gave me a road map.”

As the celebration ensues—in lieu of a potentially macabre sequence, had Iran lost, in which the women would have been delivered from holding pen to prison—Panahi chooses as accompaniment to the street bacchanalia the 1946 Persian anthem “Ey Iran.” The anthem—its presence in the film in keeping with the ritualistic nature of football matches, Panahi says—does not celebrate the fallen monarch or present Islamic rule, but a more individualistic regard for one’s home. Lyrics were written by Hossein Gol-e-Golab:

The stones of your mountain are jewels and pearls
The soil of your valleys are better than gold
When could I rid my heart of your affection?
Tell me, what will I do without your affection?
As long the turning of the earth and the cycling of the sky lasts
The light of the Divine will always guide us

The song has not been adopted by any Iranian government, another mystery for pan-humanists such as Panahi. Despite continued concern about the creative environment at home, Panahi says he finds inspiration within such creative boundaries. Although Offside screened in 2006 in a “side section” of the Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, public viewings have since been banned. He says in an interview on the Offside DVD that arrangements had been made for domestic distribution. Indications were that the film would have broken box-office records. Yet bootleg DVDs, as with previous Panahi films, flooded the streets, and the protests of women football fans persisted for a time. Some even devised a new slogan, “We don’t want to be offside,” as part of their demonstrations.

Panahi reflects, in this 2002 interview clip, on the lack of acknowledgment at home:

A two-minute clip from a 2002 installment of South Bank, an ITV (UK) production, including an excerpt from Panahi’s film The Circle. (© ITV Network Limited)

I’ve been invited to film festivals all over the world. The red carpet’s been rolled out for me. I’ve been given awards by very prominent filmmakers. But the thing that has caused me the most pain and bothered me most deeply is that in my own country I have been treated quite differently. My film The Circle has not yet been released in my own country. I have fought to have it shown here, but the new officials in cinema have said that my film should be burned. All these difficulties sometimes make me feel that I will never be able to make another film again, even though the next day I might have a different attitude. I don’t know. It’s difficult here, to make something that comes from the heart. Maybe these three films that I’ve made will be the only ones that I ever make. If I’m ever forced to lie to myself, I will just leave it at that.

Other sources

Naturally, women’s attempts to gain access to football form but part of a dynamic women’s movement within Iran. Numerous women have suffered imprisonment and torture due to activism on issues of inheritance and child custody and related to their protests against stoning. See a recent report on National Public Radio, “Iranian Women Activists Gain Momentum” (Mar 17). Activists have created a website, Zanan-e Iran (Women in Iran), in Farsi, dedicated to their initiatives.


On grounds that it “endangered the spiritual, mental and intellectual health of its readers,” authorities on 28 Jan 08 shut down 17-year-old magazine Zanan (Women). The action demonstrates, according to Wendy Kristianasen in Le Monde diplomatique, that “women’s rights activists in Iran face growing repression” (“Stop the Presses,” Apr 08). As background, Kristianasen summarized conditions for women in the Islamic republic:

Zanan addressed rights that people outside Iran take for granted. In Iran, women still face widespread discrimination under the law and are excluded from areas of public life; they cannot be full judges in a criminal or revolutionary court or stand for the presidency. They do not have equal rights in marriage, divorce, child custody or inheritance. The legal age for marriage is 13 but fathers can apply for permission to marry their daughters younger, and to much older men. Criminal harm suffered by a woman is less severely punished. Evidence given by women in court is worth half that of men.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. [...] was with interest then that I read Rank and Vile’s current posting, and their link to The Global Game. (Funnily, for those who have read my very first post, this blog has a story on football and [...]

  2. Oz Kanka says:

    A few years ago Australia had to play in Tehran in a playoff for a World Cup spot. The Sydney Morning Herald sent a woman to cover the match who was obviously not going to be allowed into the stadium so she put on a fake mustache and dressed as a man. She got in and the paper reported the crowd figures as 119,999 men, 1 women.

  3. [...] Interview with Jafar Panahi, Open Democracy More about Panahi’s movies, Vertigo Magazine Offside trap, the Global Game The women in Offside, Washington City Paper Offside, the IFC [...]

  4. [...] the film had to be more than incidental. The list: 1. Offside (Iran, 2006), dir. Jafar Panahi. See Mar 28. 2. Phörpa (The Cup; Bhutan, 1999), dir. Khyentse Norbu. See 29 Jan 05. 3. Historias de fútbol [...]

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