One woman, one goal: To make women's football in Iran a global powerhouse

One woman, one goal: To make women's football in Iran a global powerhouse
The New Arab Meets: Katayoun Khosrowyar, an aspiring young coach, who has become a warrior for women's rights to play football as they wish.
11 min read
03 September, 2018
Katayoun Khosrowyar coaches Iran's U19 women's team [Getty]
In 2011, after getting through the first round of the Olympic qualifications, the Iranian women's team were getting ready for their next game when a FIFA representative told them they were disqualified. The reason – their hijabs.

"It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life," recalls Katayoun Khosrowyar

"I felt so bad and from that day, I promised myself that I will do everything I can to prevent Iranian girls from going through this same experience. So, here we are."

And here she is, indeed. The thirty-year-old is now attempting to break barricades in the conservative Islamic country, as she heads the Iranian Under-19 Women's National Team. 

From the women's national team captain to a coaching career, she is the first Iranian female to receive the FIFA/AFC 'A' licence for football coaching. She has previously coached the Under 14 as well as the Under 16 Women's National teams, leading both to the top 8 of Asia.

Now, with her girls in the U19 team, she aims to qualify for the Asian Games and make women's football in Iran an Asian football powerhouse. 

After the hijab incident in 2011, Katayoun kicked off an effective campaign called Let Us Play, encouraging FIFA to acknowledge women who choose to wear the hijab while playing the sport. 

In 2014, the campaign reached its goal and FIFA allowed 'head covering for religious reasons' for every Muslim female player in the organisation's member countries. 

This inspiring story of an aspiring young coach is impressive by all counts, but hearing Katayoun's personal background is simply mind-blowing. 

Born in Oklahoma, USA, Katayoun, also known as Kat, grew up as an average and normal Midwestern girl. From the age of five, she says her dad wanted her to get involved in sports.

Read also: The pioneering women changing the face of conservative Jordan through football

"I was playing football with my sisters, with my dad, with everyone I could. It was my natural way of development. Football started for me before I could even make decisions for myself, thanks to my father," she tells The New Arab. 

So how did she swap the fields of Oklahoma for Tehran? 

"When I was 16-years-old, I came to Iran for a two-week holiday to visit my family. I wanted to understand a bit more about my culture and roots," she reveals.   

"In the US, I was already on my state team, playing on a high level. When I came here there was no female gym nor any decent sport options for women," she adds.

"A few of my dad's friends said that the only thing that they have close to football for women was futsal. So, I started playing."

Katayoun says that after a couple of sessions, more and more people started to turn up to watch her train.

"'Who is this American girl?' they were asking. They were kind of amazed by a young girl with a footballer's body, a six-pack and broad shoulders," Katayoun says. 

"A few days before I was due to leave Iran, I met Shahrzad Mozafar, the women's futsal national team coach. She told me that she was starting the first women's football national team after the revolution.

"I want you to be part of it," she told me.

"So, without asking permission from my family I shook hands with her and said, yes." 

Making history 

That was Katayoun's life-changing decision at the age of 16, and since then she has not looked back.

"My whole family supported my decision. They understood that this is something big and that I'm doing something historic, something that would make a change, a positive one," Katayoun explains, when asked about their reaction to this sudden change.  

"My family knows that I'm a crazy child, but they also know that with my craziness, something good will always come out of it. I always did the hardest things. I chose to study chemical engineering. I played field hockey, tracking field and football at the same time while also learning piano.

"I did everything that I loved, and on the best level. So, they trusted my intuition. When I was called up for the national team, they were laughing. 'Kat, we always knew that you would make it to a national team, but we just didn't think it would be Iran,' my family said."

My whole family supported my decision. They understood that this is something big and that I'm doing something historic, something that would make a change, a positive one

Although, joining the Iranian national team was an easy decision for Katayoun, her predicament came with whether or not to wear her hijab while playing.

"After playing in the Western world for so long, it was different for me. During my first practice in Iran, I went out on to the field in shorts. Everybody was telling me: 'No no! You should go back and change!' But it was ok, I said to myself: 'If these women can play with a hijab, then so can I.'" 

Katayoun adds that she wanted to be like her Iranian counterparts. "I wanted to understand what it is to be like them, instead of being that spoiled American girl where everything is served for her on a silver plate. I wanted to understand a different culture with different dynamics."

Women and football

Iranian football made many headlines in the past year. From the male team's early qualification into the World Cup, to the US sanctions influencing preparations for the tournament, Team Melli's great performances against Spain and Portugal, and of course, the record number of players flooding the European market. But women's football in Tehran is making just as many waves, both for good and bad reasons.

"Football is the national sport here, for women and men alike. There's no doubt about it. Football is what can get this nation crazy, in a good way, and in a bad way too," Katayoun laughs. 

But is has not been an easy ride for women and football in the conservative country. 

Since 1979's Islamic Revolution, men and women have not been allowed to take part in sports together or attend most games involving the opposite gender. This has been particularly hard hitting for women. 

According to Iranian authorities, the female spectator ban is enforced is in order to protect religious norms and decency, claiming that the atmosphere at the stadiums and revealing nature of the athletes' sportswear make the matches unsuitable for female attendance. 

Rights activists, however, say the restrictions are simply another example state-sanctioned gender discrimination in Iran.

This has been extremely evident in football games, where women have struggled to attend and watch their much-loved sport. Dozens of women have been arrested while attempting to attend games, while some have gone to the lengths of dressing up as men to sneak in to stadiums. 

A campaign kicked off last year calling for women to be allowed to enter stadiums, and even two of Iran's most prominent football players came out in support of ending the country's ban on women at men's sports events.

Former Bayern Munich midfielder Ali Karimi, who is regarded as one of Iran's greatest football players, said he hoped that President Hassan Rouhani would support changes "for women to enter stadiums" as spectators.

In March this year, Iran promised FIFA that it would 'soon allow women into football stadiums to watch games,' after endangering its place in this year's world cup for its gender discriminatory policies. But it has still been a slow progress. 

However, Katayoun remains optimistic and slowly, but carefully sees the light at the end of the tunnel. 

"The only stadium which is problematic is the Azadi stadium in Tehran," she explains. "In Esfahan, I go to the stadium with men and watch the games with no problem at all. Though it's a very complicated situation in Tehran, I believe we are really close. There are true plans for opening women stands in the games."

Read more: World Cup qualifier 'humiliation' for Iranian women banned from stadium

Evidently, it has been a tough ride for women and football in Iran, but Katayoun hopes to break some of these boundaries and barriers. 

"When football started for women in Iran, it took over the rest of the other sports. Today, everyone wants to get involved in football here. Every day I get around 20 messages or calls from fathers who want their daughters in the national team." 

Every day I get around 20 messages or calls from fathers who want their daughters in the national team

Bringing the global game to Iranian women

"In the beginning, the girls here didn't have proper football shoes. They didn't even play on grass," Katayoun tells The New Arab.

"Now, we are tackling, pushing, running and coming up with tactics like pros. I am trying to bring the global game to Iranian women, so we can compete globally. It is all about giving back to the community and inspiring these girls to have the same conditions as the girls in the US have."

Talking about her training techniques, Katayoun says she is trying to use her own experience of playing in the States to help coach her team in Tehran. 

"I grew up as a strong independent woman. I had the best coaches, the best upbringing and supportive environment as a student-athlete in the US. So, what I'm trying to do here in Iran is mimic this, but in a society that is very different culturally, yet with a lot of potential.

"I am trying to develop the things I learned and how I was trained in the US, here with my own team, but in my own manners and structure. I feel like people trust me here more because I am American. I think it's intriguing for them to see a girl born in the Midwest, who is now living and working in Iran. I am just trying to break this negative vibe, because we are all humans. I want everyone to be trained in the best way, to make the game even more beautiful."

I am trying to bring the global game to Iranian women, so we can compete globally
The real goal 

Katayoun Khosrowyar in 60 seconds:

Describe Katayoun Khosrowyar:

Innovative with my style, very disciplined, with a good sense of humour. And I have always have a smile on my face. It helps my team, too!

What does football mean to you? 

Football is my way of life. It gave me my principles in life.

Who is your favourite team?

Real Madrid.

What is your greatest football moment of all times?

In 2011, when we were disqualified for wearing our hijabs. I've become a warrior for our right to play football as we wish.

Who is the best player you have coached?

Zahara Khodabakhshi, a talented central defender that I moved to be a forward. She has an amazing attitude and is a true professional who wants to be somebody in the football world.

What is your favourite formation of a football team?


What is your dream when it comes to football?

The dream is to make our women's team into an Asian powerhouse. Exactly like the men's team. 

The team are now preparing for the next Asian Games in Myanmar, due to kick off from October 24. They will play against Myanmar, Laos and Palestine.

"It's going to be a tough one for us," the coach says. 

"The locals have a foreign coach from the Netherlands, Laos are a strong and fast team as they play against boys occasionally, and the Palestinian team are very talented."

But Katayoun is going to strengths to prepare her young team. She has them playing against a senior team for practice, while focusing on their fitness and conditioning. The team are also watching at least two games at every camp session where they analyse and present what they think they should do in the forthcoming games.

"I want them to become creative in any aspect of the game," Katayoun says. "I am trying to encourage and build teamwork."

Her goals for her team are clear – but what about her own personal goals? 

"Of course, I want to become the senior national team coach. But before that, I need to get some experience in European leagues. I am way too young for this role and I want to gain enough experience before that," Katayoun says. 

"I want to see this system working independently. A self-efficient system of women football in Iran, and then I can continue to other places," she adds. 

"After women’s football started here in 2005, we went to the Asian Games and came second place. No one thought that we could do it, and it showed the federation that the girls are talented. They then understood that they need to invest in them.

"But the problem is that it is hard to attract good coaches to come and work here. This is where we stagnate. In futsal, a man and woman can work side by side, so they are succeeding. In football it's different. We don't have a proper league, we don't have a junior league, we don't have a league for the grassroots, so how are these girls supposed to understand the game quick enough? If there is no organised league structure, I don't think there will be serious progress," Katayoun explains. 

"In Iran, you really must fight for it. You don't have the system, the set-up, the structure. One week it can happen, the next one you don't know. Football here, also in the men's level, has progress to make in terms of conditions and facilities," she says. 

But the young coach is not giving up on her efforts for change in the country. 

"I want the girls, especially, to understand that yes, you are in Iran, you are dressed differently, you look different, but this should not harm your progress, growth or success."

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