[The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own.]
For whatever the reason, Americans haven’t really taken to professional soccer (aka football). As a recovering soccer mom, I have no credible explanation for this.
Be that as it may, Americans do love sports and not just in the crowd yelling, face painting, jersey wearing, tailgating, your-team’s-foe-is-the-sworn-enemy sense. No, we’ve embraced sports on the next level–as a catalyst for challenging social conscious and creating heroes. Heroes without capes, but with the courage requiring feats beyond flight. This week, I saw those heroes not on the field, but in the stands.
The excitement surrounding the Iranian Football Team touched that core for me. Even though I can’t name a player or understand how it is they won or lost, I did see the coverage regarding the Iranian women being allowed to actually watch the game in the stadium alongside men. Captivated by the images of their painted faces and proud banners, I cheered their brave actions.
Sports unites a people. It can unify a high school, a hometown and even an entire nation. Competition erases race, religion, nationality, gender, and socio-economic layers to solidify the fans with the competitors for a unifying goal: to win. Americans know those wins can occur off the field as much as on the field.
But what is a win? In the simplest sense, “a win” may reward the team with a trophy, a ring, and maybe a bonus check; however, the fans do not enjoy any of those rewards. Perhaps a win for fans nullifies a primal fear that a “loss” may mean your territory is about to be overtaken with the victor reaping the spoils of your food, shelter and family. Human nature connects winning with actual survival.
It is this primal connection to sports that creates the platform from which humanity is examined, challenged and redefined.
In Sophia Akram’s June 29th, 2018 article Why Are We Still Talking About Iran in the World Cup? Akram recognizes the “small victory” of allowing women to watch the game alongside the men highlighting Iran as the last country to ban this practice. Let me repeat that: The last country to ban women from watching a soccer match alongside men. A common explanation? Men use foul language. It is tempting to rant about the inability of men to control themselves once again leading to women being punished–but that’s a whole other discussion.
In the arena of sports, it is apparent The Iranian regime has a very clear understanding of the role sports plays in a society. In Reza Parchizadeh’s fascinating opinion piece How Football Has Become A Political Tool in Iran he writes, “But the regime remains fearful of the potential role that football can play in unifying the people. The recent nationwide unrest galvanized people against the government, the reformists, the conservatives and the regime itself. Football could regain its role as a force to unify the public against the regime. The 2018 FIFA World Cup could trigger another wave of civil unrest.” This fear of a chain reaction wherein allowing women to watch a live soccer match in a stadium will lead to women demanding other equal rights is real. Very real.
In the 1950s, American blacks did not have the same rights as American whites, most notably in the South. Barred from “all white” restaurants, schools, drinking fountains and most anything else that could be segregated, black Americans were second class citizens in every sense of the word. A man named Jackie Robinson changed all that when he became the first black professional baseball player. He endured horrendous acts of discrimination, humiliations and threats. Through heroic personal perseverance and critical support, Robinson changed society.
At Robinson’s eulogy, Civil Rights Advocate Jesse Jackson declared, “When Jackie took the field something reminded us of our birthright to be free.” Robinson not only forced Americans to reflect upon the practices of race-based segregation, he also inspired millions of black Americans to demand equal treatment throughout all segments of American society.
In protesting for the right to view the soccer match, those Iranian women brave a similar journey. In Heba Kanso’s article Iranian Activist Blocked from World Cup Match, Kanso quotes sections of the letter being circulated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran: “The disconnect between the people of Iran and the government of Iran on this issue is glaring… the ban derived from the same mentality that also prevented Iranian women travelling alone or having equal weight in a law court…by challenging this discriminatory behaviour, one is challenging this mentality in all its applications.” It’s more than not being allowed to watch a game. And everyone knows it.
The Iranian women cheering for their team in the stands forces difficult conversations, national self-reflection and the painful movement toward change. Having the courage to be “the face” of such a movement requires bravery and skill beyond kicking a ball. Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei’s efforts are nothing short of heroic. That is not to say what athletes accomplish in a game isn’t important. Sports heroes, real and in our stories, also reveal possibilities of a higher self of purpose. They make us want to be stronger, push our limits and conquer adversity. They exemplify the power in unity and shatter boundaries dividing us. They teach us much more than how to win a game. They teach how to win.
For Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei, and those supporting her, a victory will mean more than a trophy.