Football is one of the most popular sports all over the world, both for women and men, but women’s football in Iran grew slowly, as women were effectively not allowed to compete professionally until the early 2000s. Female athletes developed their talents through futsal, a game similar to football, played indoors, and gained public attention during the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship of 2005. A national team was more securely formed after the Iranian women won the WAFF Women's Futsal Championship in 2008.

Katayoun Khosrowyar, photo by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum for WSJ.

Katayoun Khosrowyar, photo by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum for WSJ.

Katayoun Khosrowyar, now 28 years old, was a teenager at the time, and she had played football in America before moving to Iran. Her talent was sharply noticed and she eventually became captain of the Iranian Women’s National Football team in 2008. She also worked to change the FIFA law against female players wearing the hijab in 2011, with the internationally successful "Let Us Play" campaign.

Iran women's football team. Photo by Ali Jarekji/Reuters

Iran women's football team. Photo by Ali Jarekji/Reuters

Katayoun currently holds a seat on the national oversight board, and coaches a team for girls under 14 years old, as the first Iranian woman to earn the FIFA A license for coaching. I recently had the pleasure to speak with Katayoun, and I was impressed by the amount of drive and consideration she shares, in terms of a larger need to empower Iranian women, and emphasize their capacity to shape the national landscape.

AS: You’ve previously described yourself as a combination of "east meets west". How do you relate this to your work?

KK: I feel like I cover everything between east and west, especially as I am a “third culture kid.” I was born to Iranian Azeri parents in the United States, and went to school across Europe and the Middle East. I came into contact with various cultures, and adapted to each place and made it home.

When it comes to my work, the fact that I deal with a lot of international people is made easier by my own international background: I can understand their mind-set, cultural values and certain behaviours.

AS: Why do you think women in Iran can be empowered through sport?

KK: We are breaking the stereotype of Iranian women being generic housewives, as well as the prejudice of only seeing them in the so-called “women friendly” non-competitive sports. The fact that we are publicly showcasing that all women can be involved in any kind of sports world-wide and that we have what it takes to compete at high levels helps a lot of women realise that their health and physical fitness is important: Iranian women increasingly join the gym and various sports clubs, maybe to get a six-pack, maybe only for their mental happiness, definitely for their overall well-being. We want to empower all women to become role models to the female population of Iran, and to coming generations.

AS: When have you felt most empowered by the women around you?

KK: For the second round of pre-qualifications for the London 2012 Olympics, we were forced to forfeit the game due to FIFA hijab regulations that were abruptly announced. It was a very embarrassing moment for all of us. All my team mates, coaches, president of the federation really supported each other as far as promising to push for change. We saw a different attitude from all women worldwide supporting our cause and helping us to push for the change in the regulation. It was a two-years struggle to convince the football governing body, but we managed to change the law.

Katayoun Khosrowyar, photo by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum for WSJ.

Katayoun Khosrowyar, photo by Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum for WSJ.

AS: How did you and the Women's National Team define yourselves in relation to the Men's National Team? Do you see improved relations between the two since the success of the "Let Us Play" campaign?

KK: With all the titles the men have received and won over the years, the women’s national team had huge shoes to fill. It took several years of training and tournaments until the national women’s futsal team became Asian champions. Women coaches still need a strong education, which comes from men, because they simply have more experience. I see male coaches interested in the female team, and they are usually blown away with the way female players play. Usually, they mention in reports that women can compete with their male counterparts, and perform very well.

AS: During your TED talk in 2015, one of my favourite statements of yours was that "sports can be used as a natural tool for social integration." What elements of sports make it a natural tool?

KK: In sports it doesn’t matter that you are male, female, or where you are from. When anyone sees a ball rolling in the street, everyone wants to run after it and kick it back. There is no more to it, there is no scientific reasoning, it’s just how football lovers are.

AS: You seem to be constantly driven, what are you looking to achieve in the next few years?

KK: I want to establish an advanced system for the football federation which promotes football for women all over Iran in a more organized and systematic way. Women deserve to be trained by the best, to eventually make it to the world arena and start competing with the best teams. In April 2016, my under 16 years old team went to an international tournament in Italy, and when they played against England, most people expected a terrible defeat, but they only lost 0-2. In my opinion it was not a bad start to show the world that we can play at a high level too, even while wearing hijab.

Words: Annunziata Santelli

Images source: Getty Images/Reuters/The Wall Street Journal

Copy edited by: Elena Stanciu