Iran's Niloufar Ardalan to miss Asian Cup after husband refuses to sign passport renewal

Niloufar Ardalan, one of Iran’s best female soccer players, will not be able to compete in the Asian Football Federation Women's Futsal Championship — an indoor version of soccer — because her husband, sports journalist Mahdi Toutounchi, has prohibited her to do so.

Ardalan, who is nicknamed “Lady Goal,” said her husband has refused to grant her permission to travel, which is required by Islamic laws enforced in Iran. A woman needs her spouse’s consent to obtain or renew a passport. Ardalan told Shirzanan Global, a news outlet that promotes participation in sports by female Muslims, that her passport had expired and her husband had refused to sign the paperwork needed to renew. Toutounchi reportedly wants his wife home for their 7-year-old son’s first day of school on Sept. 23.

The tournament begins on Sept. 17 and runs until Sept. 26.

Ardalan, 30, is the captain of the Iranian team and is now fighting for a change in the discriminatory travel laws that favor men. Men do not need their wives’ permission to travel abroad.

"I wish authorities would create [measures] that would allow female athletes to defend their rights in such situations," Ardalan told

"These games were very important to me. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to work for my country's flag to be raised [at the games], rather than traveling for leisure and fun."

During the Islamic revolution in 1979, the government abolished almost all women’s sports. For two decadea, rifle was the only sport in which Iranian women could compete internationally because women could participate while fully covered, which is custom in traditional Islamic states. That’s why soccer, which typically involves players wearing shorts and short sleeves was banned, but futsal steadily gained popularity in the early 2000s.

In 2005, the Iranian government formed a women’s soccer team to participate in the West Asian Football Federation Women’s Championship and the futsal clubs became the recruiting ground. The Iranian women’s team finished second in the tournament and the government agreed to start supporting a women’s youth program to feed the national team on a regular basis for various competitions, including the FIFA Women’s World Cup.

However, while Iran was allowing women to play a sport their not actually allowed to watch in Islamic states — women are banned from watching live soccer games — it held firm to its use of traditional garb. Iranian players were forced to wear uniforms that covered their entire bodies, including head coverings called hijabs. This hindered foreign competitions because opposing teams refused to wear the head coverings on the field. The Iranian women's national team got around this rule by playing games in a special stadium set aside for Iran’s Christian Armenian community. Iranian players wore head coverings, but opponents did not.

In 2010, the Iranian women’s national team was disqualified from Olympic qualifying after FIFA banned head coverings on the field. The ban ultimately was reversed in 2012.

Ardalan’s decision to go public with her husband’s travel ban has sparked several debates across social media with opinions that range from outrage about Ardalan making her domestic dispute public to outcries for change in the Islamic law.  

Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian women's rights advocate and the director of the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, told the website RFE/RL that Ardalan’s decision to speak out was bold and that she speaks for thousands of Iranian women facing the same plight.

"This just shows to what extent this law can impact a woman's life," Sadr toldRFE/RL. "Even if a woman reaches the highest ranks in politics, sports, or culture, she still needs her husband's consent for one of her most basic rights — traveling abroad.

“She broke the silence, and this could lead to other women taking the courage to detail and shed light on other similar cases."


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