From the very first days that Iranian women were allowed to play football and the indoor variation of the sport, futsal, Nilufar Ardalan has been a constant presence. She has played both games for the past 19 years; twice she has been chosen as the “Lady Goal” of the Islamic Solidarity Games, which are initiated by the Organization of the Islamic Conference and take place every four years. In 2009, Abu Dhabi offered her a lucrative contract to play in the emirate. When she declined the offer, many sports publications ran the headline: “Lady Goal rejects Abu Dhabi’s offer because of family and hejab.”
Now she is back in the headlines. On the eve of the Asian Futsal Championship Games in Malaysia, Ardalan's name has been removed from the Iranian National Futsal Team. “My husband will not allow me to travel and my passport, which needs his consent to be renewed, has expired,” she wrote on her Instagram page.
Under the laws of the Islamic Republic, a wife must have the consent of her husband for her passport to be renewed; she must also have his permission to leave the country. So why has her husband, Mehdi Tootoonchi, a sports announcer who has frequently supported women in sports, decided to deny his consent?
His excuse is that their son, Radan, is starting primary school and his mother should be there to accompany him on the first day. But Nilufar Ardalan told the sports daily Gol that the ceremonies for her son’s first day at school were to take place on September 19 and the team was to fly out on September 20. Plus, September 24 and 25 fall on the weekend, so Ardalan’s absence would actually have very little impact on Radan’s school week. “We are talking about only one day of school for Radan,” she said.
Nilufar Ardalan, who has been preparing for the competition for months, has chosen to make her husband’s opposition public. She is determined to pursue the matter. “I will follow it through the Women’s Rights Society,” she said. “I am not travelling outside Iran for fun. My goal is to elevate my country and my flag. The same way that young men have the problem of compulsory military service and they find a solution for it, they must find a solution for women. Is there a difference? I am a woman and a mother and I will not forfeit my rights.”
IranWire asked Laleh Eftekhari, a member of parliament and of the parliamentary Women’s Caucus, about Nilufar Ardalan’s situation. Can parliament do anything about it? “As a rule we cannot interfere in the internal family affairs of the people unless the arguments between the two sides becomes public and we decide that it is necessary to intervene,” she said.
She emphasized that the guiding principle is to strengthen the family; it is the couple who must come to an understanding and decide together. “The family is entitled to special respect and status and the family members must decide among themselves,” she said. “Sometimes the problems are compounded if others interfere. If they ask for help, we can pursue the matter and offer recommendations, but we cannot interfere in the personal lives of other people.”
A Holy Law
We asked whether anything can be done to revoke the law. “What?” Eftekhari answered, surprised. “This is the law of holy sharia. The laws of sharia cannot be changed. Only they [the couple] themselves can change it when the marriage contract is drawn up, granting the husband’s consent for traveling and other activities. Otherwise, sharia demands it.”
Eftekhari rounded off our conversation by citing a quotation from Morteza Motahari, the influential theoretician of the Islamic Republic who was assassinated in 1979. The quotation applies not only to travel, but also to wives who simply want to leave the family house. “Motahari declares that it is in the interest of the family for the wife to have the consent of her husband to leave the house. Of course, the husband must also have the interest of the family in mind and nothing else. I hope that the decision of this lady footballer’s husband is based on the interests of the family.”
IranWire’s second call was to the offices of the conservative grand ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi. After listening to the details about the case of Nilufar Ardalan, the religious officials came back with the standard answer: “Only when going to Haj does a wife not need her husband’s permission. Traveling for any other purpose must have the husband’s consent unless it is stipulated in the marriage contract.”
After the story of Nilufar Ardalan went public, people took to social media to voice their opinions. There was no shortage of men and women who supported Ardalan’s husband. “If Islam says so, then it is to protect the foundations of the family,” wrote one woman. “Isn’t this lady a Muslim? Why make such a ruckus?” posted a man. “He is her husband and he has the right to make a righteous decision to safeguard his honor.”
Other users, though, supported Ardalan. Some applauded her decision to make the issue public and encouraged women to embed their demands — some, like Ardalan, would refer to them as rights — in their marriage contracts. A few others posted an embarrassing video clip of her husband Mehdi Tutunchi, whose pants were torn off during a live TV broadcast. “Is this the man who does not permit her footballer wife to travel?” someone asked.