In September, Iranian football player Niloufar Ardalan, missed the final of the Asian Games in September because her husband, sports journalist Mahdi Toutounchi, enforced the right given to him by Islamic sharia law to prevent her from traveling.
But for a 2015 Futsal World Cup event in Guatemala this week, Iranian authorities overruled her husband’s wishes and granted Ardalan, whose nickname is “Lady Goal,” a single exit visa.
“Niloufar Ardalan, who after problems with her husband missed the Asian championship matches, left the country without gaining his consent,” the judiciary said on its news website, as reported by Agence France-Presse.
“This is really important and it shouldn’t be dismissed,” Shireen Ahmed, a football player, freelance sportswriter, and sports activist who blogs about Muslim women in sports, told ThinkProgress. “It’s a really, really big deal for women there.
“[Ardalan] is using sports as a vehicle to draw attention to women’s issues in that country,” she said. “This is a very powerful precedent that she is setting.”
The 30-year-old Ardalan is one of the stars of Iran’s futsal team, a fast-paced version of soccer played indoors with six players on each side. Iran’s team is very good — despite Ardalan’s absence, they won the Asian Games in September.
Iran are going to AFC futsal championship finals. They thrashed Uzbekistan and beat Malaysia in thr semis. Will face Japan in finals. Here is a brilliant clip of the players and their incredible skills. Yes, all in hijab. #hijab #Iran #futsal #FootballIsForAllOfUs #football #AFC #malaysia #muslimahs #BadassMuslimah via @433
While Ardalan was only granted a one-time exemption from authorities, she is hoping that this sets a recurring precedent and eventually leads to a change in the law that prevents women from leaving their homes, let alone the country, without permission from their male guardians.
“I am only a national soldier who fights to raise flag of our country,” she wrote on Instagram back in September. “I wish a law would be approved that allows female soldiers to fight for raising the flag.”
Ardalan is the daughter of one of Iran’s most cherished goal keepers, and comes from a position of privilege, which is part of the reason why she was able to take a stand on this issue and inspire change. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy statement to make.
“There’s always a risk when women speak out, and I think it took an incredible amount of bravery for her to speak out,” Ahmed said.
Women’s rights in Iran still have a long way to go. Despite a promise in April to lift the ban that prevents women from attending sporting events, stadiums are still closed to women in Iran. The hijab is still mandatory for Iranian women, and, as is evident in this case, husbands, brothers, or fathers still have most of the controlling power over women.
But Ahmed stressed that when it comes to female athletes, Iran has historically been pretty progressive. The government and sports federation have recently been investing in women’s sports, and because of the gender divide in the culture, women’s sports are often run by women who have a specific passion and interest in them, rather than lumped in with men’s sports where they become an afterthought.
“Iran is considered a leader when it comes to setting an example for [Muslim] women athletes,” she said.
That doesn’t mean that things are simple for women athletes, though. Initially, the Iranian Football Federation said that due to visa complications and a lack of funding, the futsal team would not be able to travel to Guatemala for the World Cup.
However, President Hassan Rouhani stepped up and ordered the Foreign Ministry and the country’s sports minister to ensure Iran’s women’s futsal team was allowed to travel and play.
“The issue of gender equality — in sport, but also in Iranian society — has been an important one for Rouhani,” Natasha Smith of IranWire wrote. “According to journalist and activist Leily Nikounazar, it was a key strand of his 2013 election promise to usher in a freer, more open approach in Iran. With the parliamentary elections only a few months away, Rouhani’s decision to intervene is likely to be part of a strategy to bolster support for his political allies and wider agenda.”
Ahmed also described the decision to allow Ardalan to travel a potential “PR move.”
Still, for women in Iran, the fact that the clerics allowed Ardalan to travel without her husband’s permission is a significant step in the right direction.
“To take that power away from someone that is controlling the movement of women — that’s a huge deal, and it speaks volumes,” Ahmed said.