Women Football Fans Decry Restrictions: “Why Didn’t They Let Us All In?”
Women’s Tickets Capped at 4,000 Out of 75,000
The soccer match between Iran and Cambodia on October 10, 2019, in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium included the historic presence of thousands of women. However, although the stadium was more than half empty, the authorities capped the number of tickets sold to women and denied female photographers press access.
No law bans women in Iran from entering stadiums, but the policy—endorsed by hardline government officials, clerics and high-level judicial officials—has been enforced by security forces since 1981, three years after the country’s revolution.
Nearly four decades later, with no official announcement that the ban has been lifted, more than 4,000 women were allowed to buy tickets to cheer on Iran’s national team against Cambodia in a qualifier match for the 2022 World Cup. Iran won 14-0.
“The women’s behavior in Azadi Stadium today guaranteed their presence in future games,” Government Spokesman Ali Rabei told reporters on October 10 after the match.
While most women spectators expressed joy at finally being allowed into the stadium, they were also subjected to discriminatory restrictions that left many worried that the ban was only temporarily relaxed to ward off international pressure.
“More than half of the stadium seats were empty and yet many women were left outside,” Mina, an eyewitness who asked to be referred to with a pseudonym, told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “They eventually opened another section to let some of those women inside.”
Mina, who asked for anonymity for security reasons, added: “It was a strange feeling. We were happy and sad about gaining this simple right. We were surrounded by lots of policewomen who kept complaining about our hijab and demanding people extinguish their cigarettes. But overall, they treated us well.”
The crowd included women from “all kinds of backgrounds,” added Mina: “Some wore chadors and had painted their faces and were holding bullhorns. There were also young girls and middle-aged women, some of them with their children and some with their mothers. But the issue for me personally was that my husband had also come to the stadium, but we had to take separate paths to the men’s and women’s sections.”
Authorities Aimed to Block Tributes to “Blue Girl”
“Laleh,” a 19-year-old woman who attended the game, told CHRI the police tried to repress any homage to Sahar Khodayari, a young woman who died after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse in Tehran where she was facing prosecution for trying to defy the stadium ban in March 2019.
“She was on our mind,” said Laleh. “Many girls and women in the stadium chanted slogans for her and the policewomen threatened to throw out those who didn’t stop. They also confiscated banners about the Blue Girl.”
Khodayari, 29, was referred to as the “blue girl” after her death because she was wearing the Esteghlal Tehran soccer club’s signature blue color when she was arrested.
Despite the security presence, women and male fans still honored Khodayari at the game.
Video clips shared on social media show women in Azadi Stadium chanting “Iran’s Blue Girl, we will always remember your immortal name,” and “Blue Girl, we miss you.”
In one video, police women violently confronted fans carrying banners in honor of Khodayari.
Two days before the Iran-Cambodia match on October 8, Brig. Gen. Hassan Karami of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said “about 150 guards from the [IRGC’s] Special Women’s Unit,” would be deployed at the stadium.
Laleh told CHRI: “Before the match started, some of the Iranian Football Federation officials and observers from FIFA took a group picture in front of the women’s section in the stadium. Also, after the match, [Iran’s national team] Captain Masoud Shojaie led the players toward our section and they clapped their hands as a kind of welcome gesture.”
“Nothing bad happened when we went to the stadium, so we hope this trend will continue and include domestic league matches,” she added.
Women ticket-holders were only allowed to park their vehicles in two female-only areas, lots 19 and 20, next to Azadi Stadium’s eastern entrance.
Photos and videos shared on social media networks also showed thick wire fences installed around the women’s section inside the stadium.
“These fences were up during the match between Persepolis and Kashima [in November 2018]. Why have they put them up again?” tweeted journalist Somayeh Malekian on October 9.
Commenting on the female fans who were left standing outside the stadium, journalist Javad Heydarian tweeted, “The stadium is empty and despite pressure from FIFA, they haven’t sold more tickets to the women. Doesn’t this show that more than ever the Islamic Republic is a misogynist regime against women? Even state television won’t show the women [in the stadium] and the damn sportscaster makes no mention of their presence.”
“Yasaman,” a 27-year-old woman who was prevented from entering the stadium, told CHRI: “We only wanted to go inside but the police surrounded us. First they said they would not allow anyone in but then a section of the stadium was opened, and they let inside a few of the women who didn’t have tickets.”
“Why didn’t they let us all in if the stadium was empty?” she asked. “I really hope that the FIFA observers, who spoke to us behind the closed gates, will report this to the organization and prevent it from happening again… We were literally told that we were disturbing the peace and security of the match and we would be confronted if we continued to stand there. They said they would arrest us and take us to the Vozara Detention Center. They wanted to scare us, but we just wanted to buy tickets and go inside.”
Journalist Sobhan Hassanvand tweeted a photo of women creating a protest banner behind the stadium gate, commenting: “Two women who were not able to get tickets at the stadium started to make this banner about the disparity in ticket sales for men and women. Then three agents came and grabbed the banner and ordered the two women to go with them.”
Due to high ticket demand, the authorities eventually increased the number of seats sold to women, but reportedly still capped them at around 4,000 out of 75,000 total seats.
But no additional tickets were sold at the stadium on the day of the match, despite FIFA’s demand that women be allowed to attend the match “freely.”
“This is a very positive step forward, and one which FIFA, and especially Iranian girls and women, have been eagerly awaiting,” FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, said in a statement after the match. “I want to say a very big thank you and record our utmost respect to all of the Iranian girls and women who courageously stood and are standing up for their rights.”
The Iranian national team’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, expressed joy that his wife was finally able to witness him compete.
“I’m very happy. My wife’s dream came true, something I was hoping for in my athletic life. She always wanted to come to the stadium,” said Beiranvand. “She couldn’t come during the World Cup [in Russia] and the Asian Football Confederation Cup [in the UAE in 2019], but today I’m very happy that it happened. I hope one day to sit next to my wife and watch league and international matches at Azadi and other stadiums.”
Journalist Danial Shaigan posted a photo of a husband waving from the men’s section to his wife in the women’s section. “The most striking scenes in Azadi Stadium today are these hands that have been kept apart. CC to all the officials who separated the families,” he wrote.
On October 7, about 50 people who said they opposed the ban being lifted gathered in front of Azadi Stadium, to protest women being allowed into the stadium. The demonstration was organized by a group that calls themselves the Headquarters for Resurrecting the Promotion of Good and Prevention of Evil.
Some Iranians on social media noted a double standard in the authorities’ reaction to the demonstration.
While the conservative protesters were tolerated and allowed to criticize the government, other protests by civil rights activists, students and workers have been violently crushed and demonstrators imprisoned under catchall “national security” charges.
Read this article in Persian