Games Women Must Play: Jafar Panahi’s Offside

Offside (2006) | photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

In football, a player is in an offside position if they are in the opposition’s half of the field. To be offside is an offense, a position not allowed by the rules of the game. In Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film of that name, a group of female football fans find themselves offside. They are in the opposition’s half—at a football stadium—a position not allowed by the dictates of post-revolutionary Iran. 

Place—on the field, in society—is Panahi’s main concern, and Offside justifiably finds itself entirely within public, shared spaces, ones that are oppositional towards women, attempting to trap, punish, or expel them. At the beginning of the film, amidst ambient street sounds of wailing sirens, an old man seated inside a car speaks to someone offscreen. He is looking for his daughter, who slipped out of school to watch a football match, and hopes to find her and bring her back. The car he’s in soon catches up to a minibus carrying fans to the football stadium, and he rides with them on the bus, yet another shared public space, to track her down, to rein her in. In another bus headed for the stadium, a girl sits quietly, separate from the boisterous male fans, anxious to not be spotted and ousted. The film also ends with a vehicular journey. As evening falls and the match that the film revolves around nears its end, six women are put on a bus to be taken to the vice squad headquarters and apprised of their fates.  

These parenthetical journeys in Offside frame the experiences of several women who have dared to enter a football stadium—a space from which members of their gender were barred after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, on grounds of modesty and gender segregation—to watch an all-important match. They don men’s clothes, impersonate officials, drape themselves with the national flag, paint their faces with its colors, “mask” themselves as star Iranian player Ali Karimi, and even, significantly, forgo the veil, hoping that all these preparatory steps will serve as crucial camouflage. While some manage to slip past the guards to enter the raucous stadium and delight in its electric atmosphere of chants and patriotic fervor, several get caught in the process. Their incursion into this most male-centered of public spaces threatens its comfortable homogeneity and exclusivity, in turn triggering palpable anxiety. But instead of sending them home where they can perhaps watch the match on television, they are detained in a holding pen outside as they await further punishment for their indiscretions. Cut off, the match visually and physically inaccessible, the women are made to experience the true meaning of the ban in close quarters, the holding pen a microcosm of their exclusion from the public enjoyment of soccer and from its extensive fandom.   

What the holding pen also allows, albeit unintended on the part of the army conscripts or their superiors who put the women in it, is community and solidarity. Although expelled from the stadium, the women find in their growing numbers confidence, connection, cause for celebration, and a sense of agency. The entry of each newcomer to the group is accompanied by brazen cheering, and the instant camaraderie amongst the members—as they discuss players and strategy, rejoice at the triumphs of the day, and support and pacify each other—is heartening. The most reticent of this lively bunch are a young woman separated from an accompanying male relative in the crowded stadium, and another attending to honor the memory of her friend, who died in a commotion that broke out during another match. Then there is the “dribble queen,” a soccer player who not only offers a peek into how young female athletes play the game in Iran, but whose washroom emergency also gives rise to the film’s most amusing interlude. The group’s boldest comprise a smoker who raises pertinent questions—about, for instance, women’s permitted presence inside dark movie theaters but not sport stadiums—that expose the absurdity of the ban, and another who watches the first half of the match from the official stand disguised as a soldier. Finally, there is the woman who, at the sight of a known older man, dons the chador—the only one in the film to do so. The garment not only sets her apart from the others but also underscores the idea that it is not just the less conservative of the land who feel impeded by its strictures.   

While sports have historically had a more tenuous relationship with female fans, their spectating often dismissed as non-serious, uninformed, and even sexual, Offside’s are formidable. Their resolve, courage, and ingenuity in infiltrating the stadium is proof of their determination to rebel against a system whose rules they see as inane and unjust. Offside sees its women protesting both for the right to football and through football for greater rights concerning women’s place in Iranian society. At the same time, as female followers and players of sport—traditionally regarded as a male bastion—they also challenge conventional expectations of womanhood.  

Denied as they are from catching direct glimpses of the match—the game remaining tantalizingly close and yet out of view—the group experiences it through other media. The match is distilled for them through several layers of spectating. These include the telling roars of the crowds inside, the descriptions from a soldier, the reports of a woman who has momentarily broken away to watch a few minutes of it, and the commentary from a radio broadcast. The women collectively are left to imagine a match that others are watching and conveying to them—a true test of their fandom. 

The most interesting of these secondhand means of experiencing the match, however, is decidedly the moment when the women imitate the players. It occurs soon after the group’s sole soccer player returns to the holding pen, having caught a few minutes of the match. She animatedly describes what she saw to her eager listeners, and then realizes that replicating the field positions by taking on the roles of the footballers might enable better understanding for the group. She divides their “pitch” into the Iranian and Bahraini halves and places the women on it, their positions corresponding with those of the real players on the field, and even assigns roles to two of the soldiers who now gather to watch them with interest. As the women transition from being spectators to stand-ins for the athletes, they also switch roles with the soldiers, who now watch the match through them. The moment brings about a brief but significant shift in the power dynamic between the women and the soldiers who have controlled them thus far. It is the match and active participation in it—coupled with this display of the women’s obvious grasp on match developments, strategy, and each player’s game—that tilts the balance in their favor.  

And then there’s us, the viewers, who also add to the complex act of spectating. Like the women, we don’t really get to see the match, and only snatch brief glimpses when the soldier goes looking for the woman who escapes. The rest of the time, we receive the match through different media, like a distant television set framed through a bus window, or are relegated to watching others watch. Our alignment with the film’s women in this—coupled with the fact that, with one exception, all of them remain unnamed—widens the film’s scope beyond its protagonists to draw attention to a larger societal marginalization.  


Offside politicizes football. It is the perfect camouflage: it enables the film to carry hints of the limitations imposed by an oppressive regime under the guise of a lighthearted story of football fandom. This use of metaphor is unsurprising given the longstanding official restrictions on Panahi’s own career, which have forced him to be inventive, productive, and disruptive. In 2010, he was charged with propaganda against the Iranian government and sentenced to a 20-year ban on filmmaking, giving interviews, and traveling outside the country. Arrested last July to serve out his original six-year prison term, Panahi was released on bail earlier this month after going on a hunger strike to protest his detention. Since 2010, however, he has shot five features, the most recent of them being last year’s No Bears

Moreover, situating Offside between the historical and the fictional, in keeping with Iran’s long-standing docu-fiction filmic traditions, lends the film a fluid, layered quality. The football match at the center of the film is real: in 2006, in a World Cup-qualifying game at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran played and won against Bahrain. Panahi shot at the stadium during the match, using its duration, place, and real-time developments to steer the course of his film. Again, the 100 women in white scarves who are mentioned by the soldiers had indeed gathered outside the gates of the stadium. They were part of a campaign protesting the ban, their white scarves a symbol of unity and peace, and were granted access by officials anticipating criticism in the international press. There was also a real incident that had kicked off the idea for the film in the director’s mind: his own daughter had been barred from entering a stadium. 

But Offside also plays with untruths. The women at the center of the film are really university students Panahi found to enact the parts. Moreover, in order to get his script approved, he submitted a version to the authorities that described the film as being about some boys going to a football match, exercising in his writing the same kind of subversiveness the women do through male disguise in the film. 


The ending of the film also sits ambiguously within the film’s docu-fictional mode. Put on a bus, prevented from returning to their homes, and fearing being court-martialed, the women sit, unsure of what lies ahead. A feeling of dread settles in, with much crying and consternation, until the mood suddenly shifts with the turning on of the radio. As the final nerve-racking moments of the match are heard, the women huddle, listen with bated breath, excitedly shout amongst themselves, and, finally, when Iran qualifies for the World Cup, hug, scream, burst crackers, and pour into the streets. The sense of national fervor and belonging that the win sparks triumphs over their disagreements and differences, official responsibilities, and supposed transgressions, as they slip away from the bus and their captors to join the spontaneous public celebrations that erupt all around them. 

In an interview conducted in 2006, Panahi was asked if girls and women actually get into legal trouble for sneaking into matches, as opposed to being turned away and sent home, as they presumably get to do at the end of Offside. “The same thing happens to women who don’t observe the hijab properly, it is what you call ‘bad hijab’ when they show some of their hair,” was the director’s response. “The vice squad are sent to deal with them. The women are fined, or they are sometimes detained and imprisoned, or their families are sent for and they have to guarantee that they will not behave like this again. So this is how it is done. But again, it is all about the way that the authorities interpret the laws.” 

On September 13, 2022, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police in Tehran for improperly wearing her hijab, and died three days later in a hospital while still in police custody. Witnesses and various documentation suggest that she had been severely beaten, the brutality leading to her death. The news sparked widespread protests and anti-government demonstrations across the country, with women publicly burning their headscarves and cutting their hair to protest Amini’s death, and demanding regime change,  greater freedom for women, and an end to mandatory hijab. People around the world joined in the protests, with women cutting their hair to voice support. The protests unsurprisingly reached the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, too, where Iran fans wore t-shirts and held placards with “Women, Life, Freedom”—the rallying cry of the movement—printed on them. Supporters and the national team also expressed solidarity with the protesters back home by refusing to sing the national anthem during matches. 

The fictional women of Offside have much in common with the real-life protesters in Iran, both groups led significantly by the youth fighting bravely for greater freedom for women, and pushing back against an oppressive regime that has treated them as second-class citizens. Watching the film in early 2023, however, in the aftermath of Amini’s horrific custodial death and the furious protests that followed, Offside’s ending seems impossibly naïve. It veers so starkly from realism, and dissipates the film’s hitherto underlying tensions in such a simplistic way, that the characters’ paranoia now seems to have all been for nothing. While some critics have explained the ending as Panahi’s return to the sentimentality of an early film like The White Balloon, another possible reason for its incredible optimism could be the film’s subject itself: football. 

As Iran wins its crucial World Cup-qualifying match, it’s as if something shifts in the social fabric of the film, and within people themselves. The women forget their worries and chant happily through the bus’s open windows at passersby. The soldiers, too, for the only time in the film relax their hold on the women, and allow themselves to be dragged out into the crowd to join the celebrations. Panahi’s film tells us that only football, and the uninhibited joy and passion it incites globally, can explain its surprise ending—that only football has the ability to break down such stringent boundaries, to challenge oppression, to bring change.

In Offside, football is both a metaphor for social discrimination and a medium of protest. By the end, it is also a means of a miraculous escape.