Monday, October 25, 2010

Bending the Rules

Growing up in Tehran, my husband watched John Wayne movies and Roadrunner cartoons, but he never developed an appreciation for Iran’s art cinema. “The films stop in the middle of the story,” he complains. So when it comes to choosing which Iranian movies to watch, I’m usually the one who makes the decision.

One film we both love is Offside, written and directed by Jafar Panahi. It tells the story of six female soccer fans who disguise themselves as boys and sneak into a World Cup qualifying match at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. As the English subtitles state during the opening credits, the Iranian authorities ban women from men’s sporting events. Part of the film was shot during a real-life World Cup qualifying match between the home team and Bahrain.

The disguises are flimsy—two of the girls try to comply with Islamic modesty practices by wearing scarves under their baseball caps, while another wears a military uniform that does little to hide her womanly curves. Separately, they are quickly found out and placed in a makeshift holding pen outside the stadium to await punishment for breaking Iran’s gender separation laws. They follow the game blind, able to hear but not see the action behind the wall of their “jail.”

Panahi tells his story with humor that points out the absurdity of imposing a custom in a society where strict gender separation is not part of the culture. When the women plead with their guards to let them watch the game through a crack in the wall while waiting for the authorities to decide their fate, they receive the official line: the ban is to protect them from the foul language of men in the excitement of the game.

“We promise not to listen,” one girl replies.

What I find delightful about this film is the way it reflects an aspect of Iranian society that has long fascinated me: ordinary people tweaking the rules of their restrictive world to live life on their own terms, and to hell with the consequences. Pushing the envelope of acceptable social behavior has become almost a national pastime among young, upwardly mobile Iranians.

As a visitor to the country, bending the rules is not an option for me. Partly out of respect for the conservative segment of Iranian society, but also because I don’t know where to draw the line. Which rules are flexible and which ones are carved in stone?

When I bring up the subject, a common response is, “we don’t know where to draw the line, either,” usually accompanied by a nonchalant shrug. But they do know. Relatives tug at my scarf on a trip to the upscale Tandis mall in North Tehran. “Show more hair. You look too Islamic.” But on visiting an important shrine near Tehran, I found that the chador was mandatory attire (fortunately rented at the door) and had to ask some helpful ladies for a crash course in the proper way to wear it. They giggled at my attempts to walk with the huge cloth wrapped around my body—and without falling flat on my face.

With each trip to Iran, I understand these nuances of social behavior a little better, but I won’t be watching any soccer games from the bleachers in Azadi Stadium any time soon. The locals can tweak all the rules they want. I’ll sit back and watch Offside one more time.


  1. I'm with your husband on understanding where Iranian films end and why (at least with regards to the few I've seen). But you've got me intrigued, especially since soccer is our new family passion. I'll check this one out. Thanks for the rec!

  2. Very true, Heidi, about foreigners not able to bend rules. If the locals aren't sure which ones can be bent, how on earth can someone else know? This movie sounds fascinating - I need to track it down, methinks.

  3. Supriya, this movie has more of a narrative drive than a lot of Iranian movies. I won't say anything about the ending, though. No spoilers, here!

    Alli, I think the issue is often less that the locals in Iran don't know the rules and more that the rules are not universally enforced. So people argue with the authorities to see if they can get their way. There's a lot of that In Offside, too.

  4. This may be a silly comment, but I couldn't watch a soccer tournament even if my life depended on it... I suffered through my son's soccer games dilligently, but every time I could send my dad instead, I gladly did so. That is probably one of the few things that would come easy for me had I ever had to fit in the Iranian culture :)

  5. Lina, I feel the same way about American football. I just don't get that game. Offside doesn't have any scenes of the game, though. Because the women aren't allowed to watch, the viewer doesn't get to see the game, either.