The Ghoncheh Ghavami case: another Iranian own goal

There’s quite a good Twitter account I follow which specialises in anti-jokes. The jokes go a bit like this. “Q: How do you explain the offside rule to a woman? A: With a video recording of a football match and Fifa’s Laws Of The Game rulebook.” Geddit? Well, I may not have “told” that very well but the point of the anti-joke jokes account is to expose the unthinking prejudice that underlies corny sexist jokes. A flat factual answer punctures the male bigot’s puffed-up expectation of a bit of sexist fun.

The supposed inability of women to understand the (very simple) offside rule in football was always a particularly idiotic anti-women jibe, and I wonder whether the Iranian film-maker Jafar Panahi had this in mind when he named his 2006 film about young female supporters trying to get around Iran’s ban on women attending male sports events? (Yeah, of course they can understand the bloody rule you moron, and what's more they can sneak into a stadium disguised as men to get around your ludicrous ban!)

Panahi has spoken about how his film was partly prompted by the fact that his 11-year-old daughter was told she couldn’t attend an event at a football stadium in Tehran. Panahi’s enterprising daughter nevertheless smuggled herself in. Anyway, fast forward a few years and Panahi is now facing a six-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the state” and (as I’ve previously mentioned) this illustrious cinematographer has been turned into a perceived enemy of the country rather than someone the authorities could have been promoting as one of Iran’s internationally-fêted cultural assets. An own-goal if ever I saw one ...

A question arises: has the Iranian “volleyball protester” Ghoncheh Ghavami seen Panahi’s Offside? I’m betting she has. This half-Iranian, half-British SOAS graduate would surely have come across Panahi’s mini-classic. Certainly I can’t help thinking her participation in June in a protest against the exclusion of women spectators at an international volleyball match at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran was a Panahi-like piece of real-life-art-mimicry.

Unfortunately, unlike the female protagonists of Panahi’s genial semi-comic film who escape with nothing worse than an hour or two’s temporary detention, Ghavami’s fate has been altogether more serious. Having already endured arrest, death threats and solitary confinement, she’s now facing a prison term for “propaganda against the state”. Yes, that catch-all offence that Panahi has also supposedly committed.

A verdict in Ghavami’s case is reportedly expected this week. A spokesperson for the Iranian judiciary, Ghulam Hussein Mohseni Ejeyie, has claimed - highly improbably - that “Miss Ghavami’s arrest and imprisonment has nothing to do with the issue of sports and women’s participations in stadiums”, and is instead “a national security matter”. Quite what the issues of national security might be here are ... er, unclear.

At the risk of torturing a metaphor, you’ve really got to blow the whistle on dangerous stuff like this (Amnesty’s appeal on the Ghavami case is here). Like the offside rule in football, there’s absolutely nothing complicated about the principles of free speech and maybe someone should sit down with Iran’s justice minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi and explain it to him. And to lighten the mood maybe he’d also like to hear a little joke. For example: “Q: How does a woman explain free speech to Iran’s minister of justice? A: With a copy of the Universal Declaration of Universal Rights and the annual reports of the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression.”

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