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Iranian women stand united
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It was the unity of the Iranian fans, more than anything else, that shocked Talieh Akbari. Sitting in Stadium Australia in Sydney with her mother for Iran’s second group match against Qatar – their first time together at a football stadium – she was struck by the sheer outpouring of emotion. “In Iran, happiness is forbidden,” she says. “Iranian people inside Iran are not happy people, but watching the people’s happiness, that is unity.”

Talieh, 34, moved from Tehran to Australia four years ago. She is a programme producer for SBS Persian Radio and serves on the board of the Aknoon Iranian Community Centre in Hornsby. Her parents are on holidays from Iran, and so we meet in Crows Nest, where she drops them off at a drama performance at the Persian Morning Tea Programme. “It’s a very good programme, but it’s difficult to gather more than 30 people together,” she explains. “The Iranian community historically is very divided. I’ve been involved with community events for years, and always we have an audience problem and a volunteer problem.” The Asian Cup, she says, is the biggest show of togetherness amongst her community since she arrived in Australia.

As a woman Talieh is banned from attending football matches in Iran, and although she prefers watching the game on television, she was never going to miss such a rare opportunity to watch the national team in her adopted hometown. She says the ban on women in stadiums has made football like “forbidden fruit”, while her mother Parvaneh believes the match in Sydney was “the first and perhaps the last time I will see Iran play.”

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The Iran fans at the Asian Cup have been a revelation. At the last census there was 34,454 Iranian-born people living in Australia, and for Iran’s opening match against Bahrain in Melbourne, the organisers forecasted just 5,000 spectators. Incredibly, more than 17,000 people turned up, the vast majority drawn from the Iranian diaspora. A week later in Sydney, more than 22,000 people saw Team Melli defeat Qatar, while in Brisbane 11,000 people showed up to see the team qualify for the quarter-finals. In Canberra, families piled into buses, cars, trains and planes to cheer on Team Melli against an old rival Iraq. In a nailbiting, end-to-end match that went to a penalty shoot-out, Iran were eliminated.

The tournament organisers may have underestimated the passion of the Iran fans, but even for Iranians like Talieh the turnout has been overwhelming. Indeed the colour and noise of the Iranians has been a defining feature of the group stage – after the match in Sydney, Iran striker Ashkan Dejagah praised the supporters by saying “it was like playing in Tehran”.

Except, of course, for the women. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the clergy has gradually placed harsh restrictions on females attending sporting matches involving men. The cruel and unusual ruling has been the subject of the famous film, Offside, and, as Kian* told me, a major point of contention for the diaspora community in Australia.

First appeared on The Guardian. Read the complete article here.

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