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How do you feel about living and working in Iran? What challenges do you face? Iran has definitely kept me on my toes. There are so many opportunities here that I feel like I have to take advantage of. Not to fix anything but to be able to shed some light, that we need to build academies, get communities together, get a lot of OKs from high level officials for this development to go forward. But to live and work here has been amazing, otherwise I wouldn’t have stayed for so long. The support I get from the federation, the locals, the community and the system, has been amazing. If they didn’t want this type of change, they wouldn’t let me move a finger. I don’t think I would be able to get this support anywhere else in the world. And there are so many things that haven’t even started here, so that gives me the opportunity to start them. My family told me you are going to be amazing for the other girls. And I feel like I was put on this earth to try to impact positively on other women As an American and a young woman in the sports industry, how are you manoeuvring your way in Iran? What advantages and disadvantages do you have compared to an Iranian or a man in your position? Previously when I told people here that I am a soccer player, they would say do you know how to juggle a ball? Can you play for 90 minutes? Do you play on the same grass field? But after 14 years and specially in the past five years, when you say you are a soccer player, they ask are you Esteghlal or Persepolis (the two major clubs in Iran)? How was your last game? Now people know our games, they know our camps. The media has helped a lot too, shed some light on what we are doing as female soccer professionals. People are very interested in what you are doing as a player and coach. It opens a lot of doors in the community and the country as far as sponsorships. Disadvantages are the paycheck, obviously, and the fact that women here barely get a bonus after a win or championship. Whereas men get a bonus after every single game. This is something that is being more carefully looked at, because they see that women are putting everything aside to become professional soccer players and can’t manage to do two jobs at the same time. What do you miss about America the most? And what do you love about Iran the most? I just came back from Houston and one thing I miss about the US is the ease of everything. Everything has its grounded rules and laws, easy and straightforward. In Iran nothing is straightforward. You don’t know who to ask, where to ask, how to ask. The bureaucracy to just get one letter signed is very difficult, for example for inviting a player. The US has its own methods and it’s very easy to have access to those methods. But I love that Iran is so different that you are constantly going out of your way to find solutions. I am a problem solver and when you hear a lot of “No”, you have to find a way to get that one “Yes”. In the US everything is: “Sure, just give me five minutes and I will sort this out for you.” But here you learn to establish yourself as a strong professional and a strong woman and never take no as an answer. Women’s sports became very limited after the revolution in Iran but women slowly made a comeback and now are even winning Olympic medals. How do you see the state of women’s sports in Iran today? Iranian women are definitely taking huge strides in the Olympics, Asian games, and international tournaments. Comparing to our neighbours, like the GCC, we are on the top. The girls are very talented and we have good coaches. Although they look different because of the hijab, I think that gives them a stronger will to perform better and win. People think that we wouldn’t be able to win anything and we were taken aback by what we have to wear. But this just gives us more to fight for and prove that no matter what you put on us, we are still going to win medals. I don’t see women stopping any time soon. I see more young girls getting more involved in huge area of sports, ice skating, field hockey, paintball tournaments, surfing, soccer, taekwondo, karate, track and field, and these girls are getting massive support and sponsorships from local companies. They compete with the Islamic veil but they kick butt. They are showing that there is no difference. The Iranian women’s team must wear their hijabs while competing (AFP/Getty)
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Although I must say that if they didn’t wear the hijab they could perform a lot better but with it, we are fighting even harder to stay on top of rankings. It’s a shame that Nike didn’t come after Iranian girls for their hijab campaign because we have won Olympic medals and Asian medals and are very well recognised. Women have been fighting against the ban to get into stadiums to watch men’s games. And recently a group of women were allowed to get in. Why did it happen and how did it feel for you to be there? For as long as I’ve been here, women have been fighting to go into the stadium. The majority of people, men and women, want this to happen and are 100 per cent for it. The few decision makers, who are ultra conservative, do not want this to happen. It’s happened twice and we were able to go into the stadium. The first time was a selected few, and the second time a lot of women were able to get tickets to come watch the game. And it’s happening because they see women love football, they love to cheer their teams, and want to be involved in this beautiful game. It had to be passed through so many bureaucratic levels for women to attend these two times. But the fact that it happened is a huge deal and I’m sure it will happen more. People are slowly changing their minds about why and how women love football. And when they see women try to make achievements in football, the more they will be open to this. Previously women were not as interested and involved. But now you see women debating about teams and games and players, and the more this circulates, the better it is. I’m sure in the near future this is going to be something from the past. We know US sanctions against Iran are taking a hit on the economy. We also hear of other areas, like sports, that are affected by sanctions. For example Nike stopped sponsoring Iran’s national soccer team in the last World Cup. Do sanctions affect your work? I have had a lot of my action plans hindered by sanctions. Over the summer we all heard the story of Nike not giving their shoes to Iranian players, which should have rightfully been given to them. It’s a horrible position to be in. But Iranians are used to this treatment and they just went and bought shoes from the mall next door. My problems are mainly in trying to get funds to help build academies across the country for the youth to develop talent. Sanctions have also affected my work in trying to bring the Iranian girls to the US for a tournament, or bring American girls to Iran for a tournament, and get better sponsorships and packages for that. Sanctions have definitely hindered the growth. But I am getting a lot of help from domestic people here who want to sponsor women’s football. It’s not as fast as I want, but it’s better than nothing. Your two countries have been in a political fight for the past four decades. How does that affect you and your work? I don’t know Iran and the US without a political fight. I don’t know an Iran without sanctions. And I don’t know a US that doesn’t have a negative stigma against Iran. This is one of the reasons I travelled here to see if those negative connotations were true. But believe or not, Iranians love Americans. And when I talk to Americans, they love the pictures that I show of how Iran really is and how the people are here. This gives me a lot of work, because I’m always in the middle of showing my two sides how wonderful each are, to each other. Telling Iranians all about America, how amazing it is, the schooling system, the shopping, etc, and telling Americans how much fun it is in Iran, the travel, how historic and traditional, how it’s kept to its roots, people are so hospitable, the food is amazing. And I have changed people’s perspectives and minds. I hope the political fight goes away and these two countries do more together than against each other. Maybe we are not too far away from this wish. I feel like this is a major part of my development as a person, to be a spokesperson for my two countries. Because many Americans haven’t been to Iran and a lot of Iranians haven’t been to America. So it’s a matter of telling them and showing them and talking to them about what it is like to live in either country. Support free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent Minds ---Women’s sports have always been a sensitive issue in Iran. Since the 1979 revolution, there have been several bans placed on women’s sports and on female athletes, including the mandatory hijab, which female athletes have to wear even during competitions. B --- ...