"Star soccer player barred from national women’s team in Iran for not wearing hijab" read the headline of an article published in the New York Times on April 26. However, the eminent American daily — like several other news outlets — was a bit too quick to publish this story and a bit more short on fact-checking. The player may have posted a photo of herself kicking a ball around with bare legs and no hijab, but she was not officially punished for it.

On April 24, Shiva Amini, aged 28, posted a video on her Instagram account showing her playing futsal (indoor football on a smaller court) with a group of men when on a trip in Europe. To top it off, in the footage, she isn’t wearing the hijab that women must wear in Iran. In another photo that she posted on Instagram, Amini can be seen playing football with bare legs and a bare head. In a third photo, Amini is doing all of the above: playing alongside men, with bare legs and no hijab.

"I never would have imagined that one day I’d work as a coach and play with friends, without a hijab and without covering my legs, while I was travelling. After this, I won’t be able to play in my own country any longer,” she wrote in the caption on the post.

The first image on the Instagram post above shows Amini playing with bare legs and no hijab. If you click on the right-pointing arrow, you can see the video of Amini playing soccer with a group of men (once again without wearing a hijab).

Amini claimed that the Iranian Futsal Federation banned her from playing or even training with a team in Iran after she posted this video.

Amini contacted journalists to talk about what happened. Within a few hours, articles about how a young player was banned from playing in Iran after appearing in a photo without a hijab popped up not only in the New York TImes, but also in the British daily The Independent, the British tabloid the Daily Mail, the website Russia Today and countless Persian-language medias, including the Persian-language editions of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. However, all of these medias were premature in hitting publish.

Amini posted this photo, which shows her playing alongside men with bare legs and without a hijab, on her Instagram account.

It’s been eight years since Amini played on the national team

A closer look reveals that the last time Amini’s name was included on a roster of the Iranian national futsal team was back in 2009, when she represented Iran in the Asian Indoor Games held in Vietnam. The Iranian Futsal Federation confirmed that she hasn’t been part of the team since. It’s a little strange to make a fuss about being banned from the national team… when you haven’t been a part of said team for eight years.

Amini poses with other members of the Iranian national futsal team in 2009.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted Amini. She said that she had refused to play for the national team after 2009 because of “differences of opinion” with the federation. She continued playing at a club level until she injured her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in 2012 and had to stop playing. She then became a coach. However, after just one season, she finally decided to put futsal aside. From 2013 to 2017, she didn’t play futsal as part of a club. However, she says all that changed a month ago:

The coach of an Iranian club told one of my friends that he wanted me to come play for his team. Then, another team also asked me to come both play and coach. During trips to Italy and Austria, I picked up futsal again — that’s also where I played without a hijab and alongside men.

When I posted the photos of my games on Instagram, my friends warned me that these pictures might cause me problems back in Iran. Then, a photographer told me that these photos had been taken from my Instagram account and published elsewhere. I didn’t know where they had been posted but I started to get worried about what consequences these photos would have for my career. I decided to contact the federation.

I decided to contact the federation anonymously. I told them that I was currently outside of Iran and that I had played futsal with men and without wearing a hijab. I asked them if there’d be any consequences for my actions. I spoke to several different people and the responses varied. Some of them were sympathetic, but others really told me off. One woman told me that she had seen the videos and that she recognised me in them. She said that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be doing that. Finally, a high-ranking official said to me: “It’s obvious that you planned this and that you were working in collusion with the opposition and anti-Islamic groups.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it terrified me.

However, Amini did admit to FRANCE 24 that she hadn’t received any kind of official notice from the Iranian Futsal Federation banning her from playing in her country.

Contradictory statements

Except… In an interview with Voice of America the day after her photos were published, Amini did say that she had been “banned from the national team.” Amini told FRANCE 24 that she had misspoken in that interview and that what she had meant to say was that, if she came back to Iran, she would be banned from all competition.

But it was a bit late to admit to that, seeing as her interview with VOA sparked off a media snowball. Many of these news organisations seem to have hit publish before verifying the claims with the Iranian Futsal Federation or the player herself.

Whatever the truth of this story, if Iranian authorities have evidence that a woman has played sports without wearing the hijab — even while abroad — they might punish her. Just last month, the Iranian billiard federation sanctioned several players for failing to wear hijabs abroad. And it’s not just athletes at risk — any Iranian woman who doesn’t observe the Islamic codes enforced in her country while abroad may be in trouble when she returns to her home country.