Once upon a time, censoring images out of sports events broadcast on Iranian TV followed predictable rules. In 2000, when Mohsen Rasouli, a striker for Tehran’s Saipa football team, scored a goal against a rival, he removed his shirt and shorts in the excitement of the moment. But Iranian TV did not interrupt the live broadcast. Later that night, a TV presenter asked Mohammad Mayeli Kohan, Saipa’s head coach at the time, to ask why his player had removed his clothes.
In other words – the scene was aired and only the lower half of Rasouli’s body was blurred.
Years later, when Ezzatolah Zarghami, one of the students who occupied the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took more than 60 Americans hostage, was appointed head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, he intensified the censorship of live sports events. Broadcasts with problematic content were interrupted with replays of earlier moments from the match shown in slow motion.
It Is Hot in Cuba
In July 2013, Zarghami claimed that religious authorities were unhappy with even his level of censorship. “We spoke with [certain] religious authorities,” he told Mehr News Agency [Persian link] at the time. “I said that if we were to follow Sharia law, we must not broadcast the Iran-Cuba match on Saturday because the weather is hot in Cuba and the pictures would be inappropriate.”
Zarghami said that he did not want people resorting to satellite channels to watch that game and that he wanted to convince religious authorities that it should be shown on IRIB. But he revealed something of his way of thinking in that same interview: “We know that, Sharia-wise, we must not show these games and we are very unhappy for doing it,” adding that “broadcasting volleyball games is more difficult than broadcasting presidential debates.”
IRIB censors a whole range of pictures because of “Sharia problems”: Women spectators in stadiums, tattoos on the bodies of footballers or spectators, footballers who remove their shirts after scoring a goal, even female doctors sitting on the benches of England’s Chelsea football club or Italy’s national team. Iranian TV even broadcasts the games of the UEFA Champions League or the FIFA World Cup with a seven-second delay to cut any offending scenes.
In 2016, Adel Ferdosipour, host of the weekly sports program Navad on IRIB’s Channel 3, was vexed when the live broadcast from a match between Liverpool and Dortmund was repeatedly interrupted. In the match’s second half, the broadcast was cut altogether and replaced by car-racing scenes. “I swear to God I am not a car rally reporter,” Ferdosipour said on air. “Please restore the Liverpool match.”
Enter the She-Wolf
Now this obsession with protecting the public from obscene images has extended to the logo of a football club. On Wednesday night, April 4, IRIB blurred the logo of Italy’s Roma football team during a broadcast of Roma’s match against Barcelona. The reason: the logo shows a wolf that is breastfeeding two babies and the breasts are clearly visible.
The image, of course, is immediately recognizable to anyone who has a passing familiarity with the founding mythology of Rome. Romulus and Remus were twin brothers whose granduncle had usurped the throne from their grandfather and saw them as threats to his reign. The granduncle placed the boys in a basket and threw then into the river Tiber. But the basket ran aground and a she-wolf found the boys and saved their lives by nursing them until a shepherd later took the boys in and raised them. Romulus and Remus grew up to found a city at the place where the she-wolf found them When they became adults they decided to found a city where the wolf had found them – this was Rome. (The twins later became rivals; Romulus eventually killed Remus, and named Rome after himself.)
The Roma football club was founded in 1927 and, not surprisingly, chose an illustration of the wolf breastfeeding the twins as its logo. But the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has no interest in the story. Perhaps Romulus and Remus should have refused the wolf’s offer, or perhaps Roma should have paid no attention to the history of its own city.
But the most important question is this: can a picture showing a she-wolf’s breasts be sexually arousing?
Mehrab Ghasem Khani, a former writer with IRIB, has a flippant answer to this question. “In this year’s budget for IRIB’s catering needs,” he wrote on his Instagram page, “provide for a weekly sack of camphor.” Camphor, used extensively in pre-modern eastern medicine, is supposed to have a “cooling” effect on men’s libidos.
The Bear Must Wear Trousers
Another wag, the Denmark-based Iranian sports journalist Mehdi Rostampour, wrote on his Telegram channel [Persian link] that "In 3,000 years, Remus and Romulus have been deprived only of their mother's milk, but Iran's state broadcaster now deprives them of even a she-wolf's milk."
But unlike past instances of censorship, this situation has provoked reactions beyond Iran and Iranians. “Is your logo appropriate for Iranian TV?” wrote BBC reporter Alistair Coleman on the BBC Sports Twitter page. “Not if you are a Roma fan.”
The censored image of a she-wolf suckling two babies might be considered sexually arousing for IRIB’s censors and it may be amusing for Iranians on social networks. But for Roma itself it was an insult.
The club reacted to the controversy by posting two versions of its logo. On the right was the actual logo with the caption “If you do not like me this way...” and on the left the wolf and the babies were blurred, with a caption that said “You can like me this way.”
Iranians on Instagram and Twitter tried to compensate for this by using the hashtag “#asroma”. They offered their apologies to the club, posted pictures of themselves next to its logo and explained that Iranian TV is not a fair representative of Iranian people. Their efforts paid off and the club thanked its Iranian supporters on its official Twitter page.
Perhaps IRIB should plan on the other logos it wants to censor — like the logo of the German National Football Team, an eagle that is standing upright with its long tail showing between its legs. IRIB may find this sexually arousing or, as Ezzatolah Zarghami would say, problematic from a “Shia-wise” point of view.
The logo of England’s Football Association shows three lions on a heraldic shield. Perhaps this logo will prove to be inappropriate as well. The censors at IRIB have their work cut out for them. They must come up with new guidelines of what is permissible for Iranians to watch and what is not.