Political Contestation around the “Football in Cinema” Project in Iran

Nazanin Shahrokni, London School of Economics


The ban on women’s football spectatorship in Iran has become a durable element of the self-visualization of the Islamic regime, yet it has never been formalized in the form of a law. Women’s presence inside football stadiums as spectators of men’s matches has been problematized largely on the grounds that it is religiously unacceptable and renders women vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse. The durability of the ban, however, does not imply that its status and rationales have been kept outside the realm of political negotiation and contestation. Different actors within and outside the state have implicated the ban in their competition for political power or economic advantage and rendered it a stage on which political battles are fought. In this article, I explore the ways in which political contestations are mapped onto, and further politicize, everyday sports and entertainment spaces. To do so, I focus on the case of the “football in cinema” project to highlight the multipolarity of the complex terrain of conflict and negotiation among female football fans, cinema owners and managers, movie producers, and various state officials and organizations.  The article follows how the disputes over women’s football spectatorship and their access to football stadiums has spilled over into other spaces, such as cinemas, cafés, and restaurants, where football has been livestreamed. It explores the ways in which gender, political, and economic interests fuse and collide to give these spaces unique shapes and meanings.

Football Comes to the Silver Screen

Various administrations and political actors have expressed criticism of Iran’s ban on women’s sports spectatorship over the years, particularly over women’s exclusion from Azadi Stadium, the largest sports complex in Tehran where most national matches are played.[1] Ironically, the most decisive challenge to the ban came from within the conservative administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005–2013), who had otherwise been known as an advocate of gender discriminatory practices. In 2006, Ahmadinejad broke with the position of Iran’s Supreme Leader and the clerical establishment by issuing a directive that obliged the Physical Education Organization to facilitate women’s entrance into football stadiums, in designated seating sections in line with the gender segregation regime. The clerical establishment that had been supporting the ban saw Ahmadinejad’s directive as an attempt to curb their power. They, thus, mobilized to rebuke Ahmadinejad, until the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, intervened to force him to revoke his directive. The controversy was rekindled in mid-2010, almost a year after the Green Movement and the contested reelection of Ahmadinejad as president of the Islamic Republic[2] when, in an attempt to shore up his legitimacy and regain the lost ground in his confrontation with the clerical establishment, he raised the issue of women’s exclusion from football stadiums once more, this time by proposing to bring the concluding World Cup football matches to the silver screen, as cinema spaces, unlike stadiums, were open to mixed gender audiences. In July 2010, enthusiastic, yet apprehensive crowds of spectators flocked into Tehran’s cineplexes to watch the 2010 World Cup concluding matches as the Supreme Leader, the clerical establishment and the state apparata accountable to them watched the experiment closely.

In January 2011, a few months after this initial experiment, Ahmadinejad’s administration together with the conservative-led Tehran municipality – the owner of major cineplexes in the city – saw in the success of the experiment and in the popularity of football an opportunity to compensate for an alarmingly declining movie attendance rate and decided to screen more international matches in movie theaters. Although the rationale behind this decision was largely financial,[3] the initiative was soon to be embroiled in a whirlwind of political contestation.

On January 20, 2011, Tehran’s major cineplexes, including Azadi and Mellat cineplexes, welcomed both male and female fans to a live screening of the AFC Asian Cup group stage match between Iran and the United Arab Emirates. Soon after the screening, cinema managers were summoned by the National Police Force, and were allegedly asked to restrict these events to male spectators and to prohibit women from entering theaters when football matches were screened. Pointing out the hierarchical accountability in state administration, however, the Deputy Director of Tehran Municipality’s Cineplex Affairs, Amirhossein Alamolhoda, stated that “cinemas are under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance [and not the police],” and so cinema managers “shall wait and see what [the Ministry] instructs them to do.”[4] The conflict between the police (whose head is appointed by, and therefore accountable to, the Supreme Leader) and the Ministry of Culture (whose head is appointed by, and therefore accountable to, the president) culminated in an impasse and the screenings were suspended. The next day, fans retreated to their living rooms to watch Iran’s match against South Korea on their TV screens.

A year later, the controversy resurfaced. During the 2012 UEFA European Championship, football fans were offered a ray of hope. On June 7, the vice president of the Association of Cinema Owners, Gholamreza Faraji, announced that fourteen cinemas across Tehran would screen select matches. Unhappy with this announcement, Iran’s chief of police, Esmail Ahmadi-Moghadam, stated that it would be illegal to screen matches if cinema managers did not observe “the rules of gender segregation” and divided the cinema space between men and women.[5] Interestingly, the “rules” evoked by the chief of police had never applied to movie theatres, where film screenings had been uncontroversial and enjoyed by mixed gender publics. Exploring the reasons for this differential treatment requires venturing into the realm of speculation. Yet, the original concerns about women’s entrance into football stadiums—and the atmosphere engendered by the effervescence of fans’ passionate behavior seen as a threat to the maintenance of gender boundaries—seem to have been instrumentalized in the “football in cinema” controversies in the pursuit of political gain. Attempting to turn individual acts of refusal into a collective voice, the deputy director of the Cinema Organization of Iran, a subdivision of the Ministry of Culture, Alireza Sajjadpoor, requested that cinema owners and managers send their requests for screening permits through the ministry, rather than individually approaching the police: “We decide which theater is suitable for the screening and we negotiate on their behalf and as a collective.”[6] Again, this reflected an institutional power struggle: Ahmadinejad’s Ministry of Culture was effectively struggling to consolidate its position and share of state power and to get a relative advantage in its negotiations with the police—and, by extension, with the Supreme Leader. The political battle between elements within the state, nonstate actors, and the clerics was now being fought in a different field. If the doors of Azadi Stadium, which Ahmadinejad had tried to breach during his first term in office, could not be opened, he was now set to flex his muscles by opening the doors of Azadi Cineplex.

With the Euro Cup finals around the corner, Sajjadpoor, from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, asserted that it was only the ministry that was responsible and held accountable for what goes on in movie theaters. Consequently, the Ministry of Culture, in coordination with Tehran Municipality, screened football matches in movie theaters that were prepared and equipped to do so.  Nonetheless, as people sat in their seats to watch the first match, the police raided theaters in Mellat and Zendegi cineplexes, dispersed the crowd, and shut down the buildings. The clerics congratulated the police for their “manly” intervention. The head of the Cinema Organization of Iran, a subdivision of the Ministry of Culture, Javad Shamaghdari, criticized the police for “acting as if they [were] above the law.”[7] In this and other statements, references and appeals to “the law” were used to juxtapose the authority of the elected administration (situated “within the law”) with that of the Supreme Leader, the clerical establishment, and the state officials appointed by and accountable only to the Leader, who normally operate “above” the law. Despite these skirmishes, Ahmadinejad reached the end of his term but his last attempt at scoring a political goal was blocked by a joint defense from the police and the clerics.

Competing Claims and Contested Spaces

With the reformist Hassan Rouhani assuming the presidency in 2013, a new phase in the controversy over football screenings in theaters began.[8] As the doors of Azadi Stadium remained closed to women, Rouhani’s administration also attempted to shift the focus away from the stadium and toward the cinema space. With Iran winning a ticket to the 2014 World Cup, the “football in cinema” project was back on the table. This time, the proponents of the project adopted a non-confrontational approach, as evidenced in a statement made in April 2014 by one of the Tehran municipality officials, Seyyed Hadi Monabbati, who encouraged the police to stand by, and not against, the people: “Iran is present in the World Cup and what cinema owners are requesting has a national dimension. This is a national matter, and it would be better for the police to stand by the people and help us materialize our national sentiments.” He concluded by reassuring that “the services and the presence of the dutiful members of the police” were still needed for maintaining order and security inside the theaters.[9] The strategy elevated the issue of access to theaters to a matter of national importance (instead of a demand of a particular segment of society) and, rather than ignoring or excluding the police, recognized them as key players, and thus stakeholders. The Social, Cultural, and Sports Committee of Tehran Municipality subsequently approved and planned for the screening of World Cup matches in various venues, and in select parks.

Not all social groups were pleased with the proposal to screen football matches in theaters, as the initiative provoked new social actors to step forward with competing demands. As cinema managers attempted to attract more viewers by investing in the public’s love of football, some film producers and directors, such as Jahangir Kosari, called this initiative “an insult to art and cinema and a slap on the face of culture.”[10] Film producers were unhappy about the blurring of the boundary between “high” and “low” culture; between the arts (where, in their opinion, their films belonged) and sports spaces, and also, about the implications of institutionalizing screening matches in theaters as far as the status of their movies and their revenues were concerned.

Either way, as in previous years, the screening of the matches was canceled just before the World Cup. Amir Hooshang Pasbanian, manager of Esteghlal Cinema, claimed the initiative was blocked by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Iran’s national TV, whose head is appointed directly by the Leader and is independent of the administration, as Channel 3 of the Iranian TV had bought the 2014 World Cup broadcasting rights and refused to allow cinemas to use its feed.[11]

Against this background of protracted acrimony between the elected administrations and the officials appointed by, and accountable to the Supreme Leader, the cancelation of the scheduled events did not come as a surprise. Several restaurants and cafés had anticipated it and stepped in to fill the gap, using text message marketing to inform Irancell subscribers that their venues would be hosting a series of World Cup match screenings. Restaurant spaces were filling the vacuum created by the restrictions set on women’s sports spectatorship but, more importantly, by the rivalry between different political factions. As these formerly unregulated spaces grew popular, the police stepped in to control them. According to the head of the Association of Coffee Shop Owners, Eskandar Azmoodeh, during World Cup matches, cafés were required to either turn off their TVs or switch to a channel not showing football matches, or otherwise could have their permits revoked by the police.[12]  Coffee-shop owners refused to comply and found ways around the regulations: they either hired a watchman (beppa in Farsi) or “gave the police their share [bribed them]” for looking the other way. This, however, was a temporary solution, as the public screening of football remained a thorny issue in Iranian politics.

Iran’s presence in the 2018 World Cup held in Russia was a source of national joy, hope, and pride, but also of frustration. Rouhani’s reformist administration, having ended its first term in a stalemate with conservative factions, saw in football the opportunity to regain relevance. After years of political bickering about the possibility of screening the matches in movie theaters, and the short-term stopgap of using cafés, a new idea emerged: live streaming of football matches on huge screens inside the Azadi Stadium. This idea came particularly as a means of deflecting the negative publicity that the ban on women’s sports spectatorship had on both the domestic and international fronts. After extended negotiations, Tehran’s chief of police said that the police were not against citizens’ happiness and welcomed any program that would cheer them up, stressing however that their (unspecified) conditions should be met.[13]

On 20 June 2018, the gates of Azadi Stadium were finally opened to “families,” meaning men and women together. Ten thousand people gathered inside the stadium to watch, not a live football game, but the televised match between Iran and Spain. Later, social media was filled with pictures of happy Iranians watching the match in Azadi Stadium and an array of open-air spaces across the country. Despite Iran’s defeat in the football match against Spain, various presses declared Iranian fans as “the real winners.”[14] The reformist head of the Parliament Women, Sports and Youth Committee, Tayyebeh Siavoshi, who attended the screening herself, referred to the World Cup as “a wonderful occasion for the government to create social cohesion and national solidarity, especially at a time, when people are facing all sorts of problems in the domestic as well as at international scenes.”[15] Indeed, broadcasting football inside Azadi Stadium was symbolically important and earned Rouhani’s reformist administration a win on the international stage. Various media outlets celebrated “the U-turn” by Iranian officials,[16] and even Human Rights Watch praised Iran for “steps in the right direction.”[17]

Despite the apparent symbolic breakthrough achieved by the Rouhani administration, the gates of Azadi Stadium did not remain open for women and the ban proved to be more durable than one would have thought.

The Beautiful Game in Times of Crises

Attention to the ban was rekindled on September 2, 2019 when Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old woman, set herself on fire outside a Tehran courthouse where she was to appear on charges of attempting to enter Azadi Stadium dressed as a man. On October 10, 2019, in the midst of domestic and international outcry over the death of Sahar Khodayari, the Rouhani administration opened the gates of Azadi stadium to female spectators for the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia, allocating to them a mere 3,500 seats out of a total of 80,000.[18] The incredible women to men ratio effectively betrayed the lack of will to go beyond small symbolic acts. As the dust settled, the doors were shut again and, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of access to stadiums for both male and female spectators became a moot point.

By the time the pandemic was over and Iran qualified for the 2022 World Cup, a new, conservative administration under President Raisi had come to office. In September 2022, as Iran’s national team was preparing for the World Cup tournament in Qatar, the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests that followed Mahsa Jina Amini’s death at the hands of the morality police, and the violent repression with which they were met, introduced a new element in the debates around football spectatorship.[19] The protests led to a period of heightened securitization, especially when it came to public gatherings (including those related to attending sports events) as the regime wanted to curtail opportunities for the spreading of the protests. Furthermore, the national team itself became embroiled in controversy as critics of the regime inside and outside Iran pushed initially for the cancellation of the Iranian team’s participation in the games and, later on, called on the players to “disown” the regime, or refuse to play, or urged the Iranian public to disown the team, boycott its matches and screenings, and not celebrate any of its wins.[20] Football was in crisis. Meanwhile, cinema managers drew attention to another crisis, pointing out their shrinking revenues as a result of the protests.  Ali Sartipi, manager of Kourosh Cineplex, expressed concerns about what he labeled as an “unprecedented crisis,” recalling that even during the Iran–Iraq war (1980–1988), and Iraq’s bombing raids, people would still queue outside movie theaters to watch films.[21]

Under these circumstances, cinema owners, once again, turned to football, seeing a lifeline in the possible screening of matches. New and time-rehearsed arguments were mobilized to support the screening of matches, including the expectation that football screenings would entice even those who were not looking for “high culture” into movie theaters and would “hopefully” encourage them to return. It was also suggested that such occasions would foster conviviality and help counter the depression induced by the political and economic malaise, and, finally, that getting people into the cinemas, where their excitement could be contained, was a much better option than letting them congregate in the country’s volatile streets where “hooligans” might create chaos. What we see in this argumentation is the cinema owners’ attempt to tie their economic interests to the political interests of the regime, and the imperative of containing the protests and maintaining order.

Unlike earlier occasions when differences between the elected administrations and the Supreme Leader had led to disputes over competence and jurisdiction, the conservative administration of Ebrahim Raisi was loyal to the Supreme Leader and had no intention of using the screening of World Cup matches as an opportunity to challenge his authority. It is not surprising, then, that the Ministry of Culture’s Supervision and Evaluation Office stepped in, circulating a directive to provinces that permission for football screenings would be forthcoming as long as the screenings—inside theaters and elsewhere—used the feed provided by the Iranian Public Broadcaster.[22] What delayed the process this time was that the police and the Ministry of Culture were reacting to two different crises: the police had concerns about enforcing public order in the immediate aftermath of the protests, while the Ministry of Culture had concerns about their cash-strapped cinemas.

At the end of the day, the directive of the ministry arrived too late for the screening of Iran’s first two matches (against England and Wales). Yet, Iran’s third and last match (against the USA) was live screened, to mixed gender audiences in 103 cinemas across the country, and netted 609 million tomans, considerably more than some movies could generate. With Iran eliminated from the competition, interest in the World Cup waned. Nevertheless, screenings resumed during the final stage of the World Cup. Overall, the total revenue from the screened matches was a little less than one billion—“a disappointing figure,” according to some cinema managers, given the hopes that they had to compensate for the economic crisis.[23]

The delays in decision-making had a cost. In the midst of the extraordinary protest waves that shook the country, the usual suspects were once more unprepared, caught by surprise, unable to depart from the messy script they enact every few years.

Politics in Fluid Terrain

The state that emerges out of this account is composed of a multiplicity of state-actors that perform various functions, respond to distinct sets of interests, and are accountable to different entities.[24] The police and the Ministry of Culture, for example, have different responsibilities and perform different functions: the ministry is in charge of regulating the content of what is shown inside a movie theater, and the police is responsible for establishing and maintaining security and order in the cinema space. Thus, their co-presence in the same spaces—the movie theater in this case—leads to frictions, and requires complex negotiations and the formation of some common ground to avert conflict.

Societal and other nonstate actors are similarly fragmented. Different actors within the cinema community—namely, cinema owners and movie producers—are situated differently vis-à-vis the state. They represent different sets of interests, have different, sometimes-contradictory, definitions of and expectations for cinema space, and therefore make different kinds of claims on the state.

To complicate things further, the boundaries between the interests of state and nonstate actors are blurred, breaking down notions of the duality of state and civil society as two distinct and opposing entities.[25] Once freed from this binary, all kinds of new and unexpected alliances between state and civil society actors can be detected. As shown in this article, at one point, women’s interests became entangled with the financial interests of cinema owners that in turn converged with the political interests of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The merging of interests and newly formed alliances, however, are tentative and precarious. Cinema owners, as nonstate actors, join state actors such as the Ministry of Culture against the pressures exerted by movie producers, another nonstate actor, for the “football in cinema” project, but cinema owners and movie producers often come together against the state’s censorship of popular movies that could otherwise contribute to increased revenues at the box office. In fact, Ahmadinejad’s Ministry of Culture, an ardent promoter of the “football in cinema” project and women’s inclusion into football spaces, was most notorious for censoring and blocking the screening of several movies.[26]

The screening of football matches has had a turbulent history, not unlike the turbulent politics of the Islamic Republic itself. Although the major controversy related to the spectatorship of the “beautiful game” has revolved around the issue of allowing, or not, women to watch live or screened games, the absence of women and their voices from the altercations between state and civil society actors is deafening. Women’s bodies and their cause have effectively been reduced to a pitch on which more “important” political and economic games are unfolding. Actors within the state and civil society have been realigning themselves at different times, using women and the spectatorship issue as blank banners for battles for distinct, unrelated trophies. The result has been an extremely unstable and uncertain terrain, marred by what I have termed elsewhere “messy governance,”[27] lack of clarity in terms of institutional accountability, lost economic opportunities, and institutional incompetence and ineffectiveness.




[1] For a full discussion about the role of different administrations, see: Nazanin Shahrokni, Women in Place: The Politics of Gender Segregation in Iran (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020).

[2] See Paola Rivetti, Political Participation in Iran from Khatami to the Green Movement (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

[3] Seyyed Hadi Monabbati, Deputy Director of the Arts and Cultural Organization of Tehran Municipality, reported, for example, that every four years, during the World Cup, cinemas suffered from a weak box office. See “Pakhshe bazihaye jame jahani dar do cinama [The Broadcasting of World Cup matches in two movie theaters],” June 1, 2010, Tabnak, www.tabnak.ir/fa/news/101949. All English translations of Farsi quotes were conducted by the author.

[4] Donya-e Eqtesad, January 22, 2011, Item #640261.

[5] “Pakhshe football dar cinamaha manoot beh ejazehye edareye amaken [The broadcasting of football is conditional upon police permission],” ISNA, June 7, 2012, www.isna.ir/news/91031810179.

[6] “Mojavez hanooz sader nashodeh/Pakhshe mosabeghate football dar cinama [No permission issued yet/The broadcasting of football in cinema],” ISNA, June 9, 2012, www.khabaronline.ir/detail/219367/culture/cinema.

[7] “Momane’ate police az namayeshe football dar amakene omoomi, Voroode khanoomha mamnoo [The police prevents the screening of football in public places, women’s entrance prohibited],” BBC News Persian, June 16, 2014, www.bbc.com/persian/sport/2014/06/140616_l43_wc14_football_public_viewing_banned.

[8] See Nazanin Shahrokni and Spyros A. Sofos, “Mobilizing Pity: The Dialectics of Narrative Production and Erasure in the Case of Iran’s #BlueGirl,” Globalizations 19, no. 2 (2021): 205–219.

[9] “Namayeshe football dar cinama khanevadegi khahad bood [The broadcasting of football in cinemas will be for families],” Mehr News, April 23, 2014, www.mehrnews.com/news/2276888.

[10] “Momane’ate police az namayeshe football dar amakene omoomi, Voroode khanoomha mamnoo [The police prevents the screening of football in public places, women’s entrance prohibited],” BBC News Persian.

[11] “Nazare cinama daran dar paye ezharate NAJA [Cinema managers express their opinions about the statements made by the Iranian Law Enforcement Forces],” ISNA, May 3, 2014, www.isna.ir/news/93021308587.

[12] “Vaghty pakhshe football dar coffee shopha moshkel mishavad [When broadcasting football in coffee shops becomes a problem],” Radio Zamaneh, June 23, 2014, www.radiozamaneh.com/156052.

[13] Eqtesad News, May 15, 2018.

[14] See for example: Ryan Benson, “Iran fans are the real winners as women get a glimpse of the future,” SPORTSTAR, June 21, 2018, https://sportstar.thehindu.com/football/fifa-world-cup-2018/iran-fans-are-the-real-winners-as-women-get-glimpse-of-the-future/article24219541.ece, and “Why Iran fans are the ‘real winners’ at Russia World Cup,” Nation, June 21, 2018, https://nation.africa/kenya/sports/football/world-cup-2018/why-iran-fans-are-the-real-winners-at-russia-world-cup-57504.

[15] Iran, May 23, 2018.

[16] “Iran Makes U-turn on Women in Stadiums as World Cup Fever Takes Hold, The Times of Israel, June 20, 2018, www.timesofisrael.com/iran-makes-u-turn-on-women-in-stadiums-as-world-cup-fever-takes-hold.

[17] “Iran: Progress on Ban for Women at Stadiums,” Human Rights Watch, June 28, 2018, www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/28/iran-progress-ban-women-stadiums.

[18] Nazanin Shahrokni and Spyros A. Sofos, “Mobilizing Pity: Iranian Women on the Long Road to Azadi Stadium,” Jadaliyya, October 23, 2019, www.jadaliyya.com/Details/40131.

[19] Nazanin Shahrokni, “Women, Life, Freedom,” History Today 72, no. 11 (2022), www.historytoday.com/archive/history-matters/women-life-freedom.

[20] For a discussion about the controversies around Iran’s national team, see: Golnar Nikpour, “Iran’s Football Team Has Already Won,” New York Times, November 24, 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/11/24/opinion/iran-protests-world-cup.html.

[21] “Modir amele yek pardise cinamayi: dar 40 sale gozashteh chenin bohrani ra dar cinama tajrobeh nakardim [A cineplex manager: In the past 40 years, we have not experienced such a crisis], Khabarban, May 15, 2023, https://36908082.khabarban.com.

[22] “Pakhshe mosabeghate jame jahani dar cinamaha jedist? [Is football seriously going to be broadcast in cinemas?], ISNA, November 11, 2022, www.isna.ir/news/1401082013574.

[23] “Payane royaye jameh jahani! [The end of the World Cup dream!],” Mehr News, December 19, 2022, www.mehrnews.com/news/5659139.

[24] For a great discussion on this point, see: Kimberly Morgan and Ann S. Orloff, eds. The Many Hands of the State: Theorizing Political Authority and Social Control (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[25] See Timothy Mitchell, “Society, Economy, and the State Effect,” in State/Culture: State-Formation after the Cultural Turn, ed. George Steinmetz (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999): 76–97.

[26] See Blake Atwood, “Sense and Censorship in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” World Literature Today 86, no. 3 (2012): 38–41.

[27] Nazanin Shahrokni and Spyros A. Sofos, “Students in Tehran Protest Gender Segregation in University Dining Hall,” Truthout, October 28, 2022, https://truthout.org/articles/students-in-tehran-protest-gender-segregation-in-university-dining-hall.