At the turn of the millennium, the international image of professional sportswomen in Iran was simply not there – but, times are changing. In this four part series, we applaud women that have overcome all odds to redefine the rules. Here, we share the story of Katayoun Khosrowyar the football coach that took her country's nascent female soccer scene to the next level.
“I had the chance to do something historic,” recalls Katayoun Khosrowyar, who has been an avid fan of football since the age of six. A restless child, who grew up in the States, she was prescribed football by her pro-swimmer father as a means to drain her endless energy. After the first game she was hooked, becoming increasingly vocal about her dreams of joining a national team as she grew up.
During the summer of 2005, Khosrowyar discovered that she would be travelling to Iran for the first time, a chance to revisit her Iranian-Azeri roots and connect with her culture. “In order to stay in shape, I decided to train with a local indoor football (futsal) team. After two weeks of training, I was recruited by the First Women’s Football Team coach for the national team,” she smiles. At 17, the move would require Khosrowyar to take a difficult decision. Not only would she be abandoning her life and plans for university studies in the US, she would also have to stay in a country she hardly knew and where she couldn’t speak the language. There was also a condition attached by her family – if Khosrowyar were to stay and train, she would have to complete her education, which would involve a cross-continent commute between Tehran and Birmingham. Despite these drawbacks, she had the opportunity to be a part of something groundbreaking, as the previous generation of Iranian women were not allowed to compete professionally. Her answer was a firm ‘yes’.
Women always want to be respected, not just as women in Iran, but as professional athletes
“After the National Team started, we trained for just two months before entering our first tournament, the Asian Western Games in Jordan,” she recalls. “Several officials told us not to go and embarrass ourselves, but we ended up winning all our games and reaching the finals.” Things took a downward turn, however, when, at the last moment, her team was disqualified from the London 2012 Olympics. Despite the support she received from her family and community, Khosrowyar was penalised by FIFA’s hijab ban, a restriction that denied many women the chance to play professionally. “I took that moment personally,” insists Khosrowyar, who quickly became a spokesperson on the matter. “Along with the other women in the region, we launched ‘Let Us Play’, a global campaign to create awareness for hijabi women who wish to play sport.” A lesson in speaking up for your cause, the campaign prompted a change and two years later, the ban was lifted. Rather than fall victim to the system, Khosrowyar went on to speak prolifically about female development and empowerment in Iran, with appearances at TEDx and the The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, a think-tank to open discourse on world issues.
Insistent that sport is a tool to ease tensions between religion and society, today she coaches an Under 14s girls team and is the first Iranian woman to hold a FIFA A licence for coaching, ensuring that the next generation of female footballers from her country can make it to the Olympics without discrimination. “Women always want to be respected,” Khosrowyar insists. “Not just as women in Iran, but as professional athletes”.