How do women move mountains by themselves? Katayoun Khosrowyar is an epic poem, set against a back-drop of two nations. She is showing the world how.
Born in America, to an Iranian family, she was the scrappy kid who always a had a football in hand. She once said that the ball was her barbie doll. She was already organising people into games as a child, so perhaps it was inevitable that she would end up as a manager. She is now the Iranian National Women's Team Under 19s Head Coach.
In 2005 her family travelled to Iran to see her Grandparents & learn about her rich cultural heritage. They stayed. The first thing she did was to look around for football teams that she could join. It was during a game of futsal that a scout for the Iranian Women's National Team spotted her & immediately called her up to trials for the fledgling national side. She made it.
They were making history. Because of their full-body covering, they were dubbed the "Ninjas." FIFA, always morally selective, stopped them 5 minutes before kick-off for their first official match. Why? Because they had just passed a law making it illegal to wear the hijab in official matches. They were told to take them off, or be disqualified. They refused, on moral grounds. They were disqualified.
They came back to Tehran dejected but determined. Along with a little help from the Prince of Jordan they started the "Let Us Play" campaign. Two years later, FIFA finally relented & lifted the ban. It was partly down to this experience that she now sees football as a tool to help social change & drive social integration.
Katayoun went onto become the first Iranian woman to hold the prestigious FIFA "A-License." It comes as no surprise that she also holds a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering. She is the embodiment of what can be achieved with hard work, talent & determination. She will continue to move mountains & the world is a better place for having her in it.
Football And The City spoke to her about the importance of football to women in Iran, the challenges she faces & where the women's game can go in the nation.
FATC: How important is football to women in Iran? And what does it represent to them?
KK: Football has always been a part of the Iranian family daily conversations. What teams won or lost? Who played good or badly? How was the coaches' strategy working? It is a topic of interest to both youth and adults including the senior citizens. For women though, it is a way to experience the universal game and be a part of it. It represents freedom, unification, passion & purpose. All in all, football plays a major role in an Iranian female footballer's life and they are committed to being a part of the beautiful game.
FATC: How important a part can football play in any society?
KK: In Iran it plays a social role because if teams win or lose it has a huge effect on the population. When the Iranian men's national team made it to the World Cup, streets were packed til' the early hours and men and women were all celebrating. During all world cup matches, Iranians showed their support throughout the motorways, streets, restaurants etc. When Iran lost vs Spain everyone was heartbroken and the only thing that could be done was to continue showing support for the team and continue cheering the team on even when everyone was deeply hurt. This was a topic throughout the working hours and boss's did not mind people losing focus from work to watch the games. Some companies even were showing the games live from the office and provided food and fruit for their employees.
FATC: What are the main challenges you face in your role - both on & off the pitch?
KK: Generally women's football is not the main area of focus for any country (except in the youth developments in the U.S). Iran has taken great strides to support women's football and futsal and this proved to be worth it when the women's national futsal team became back to back Asian champions. Futsal has a stronger base and infrastructure than football mainly because several fields exist - whereas football fields are rare to find.
Iran does not have a junior league or even a grassroots league-just have a senior football league for women. So girls tend to be swayed towards futsal since it has a stronger presence.
More recently I am noticing more media exposure to women's football and futsal especially as most of the population has Instagram and the girls are always posting videos and pics of training/playing. This has caught the attention of the public and they are extremely interested and support the girls more than before.
FATC: How far can the women's game in Iran go?
KK: The Iranian women are genetically talented in sports but what they lack is proper development from youth to adult. Football, though, is a different story. The talent is available but the coach level is weak and therefore produce players without a proper knowledge of football. If I can change this there is no limit to where Iranian women's football can go.
FATC: Have you found that Iranian society has been largely accepting of the women's game?
KK: I am receiving calls from fathers and mothers all over Iran to come watch their daughter play and invite them to the national team. This is extremely important for me as a coach to witness the support from families wanting their daughter to train and play. When people ask me what I do for a living and I respond "football coach" they ask so many questions and even try to give me tips on how to coach. People like the fact that women can be in sports in Iran and given the fact that we dress differently we show that we can play with the same integrity, technique and power.
FATC: What is your dream vision for the women's game in Iran?
KK: To be able to set up a strong youth development program where girl's can play and train properly. Setting up academies across the country is the main goal for me, even before trying to be top 3 Asian team. If this can be set then I can say my vision is being a football power house in Asia.
Katayoun Khosrowyar is a catalyst for change. She is a torch-bearer for hope. She is still only 30 years old. She moves the mountain.
Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow - Photographs by Bianca Lyon - all rights reserved.