By H Rastgoo
October 19, 2019
On October 10, about 4,000 Iranian women were allowed into a stadium to watch a men’s football match — a World Cup qualifier at Azadi Stadium in Tehran against the national team of Cambodia — for the first time in decades.
Before the 1979 revolution, Iranian women went freely to stadiums to watch Iranian league and national team matches. After the establishment of the Islamic Republic, gradually more restrictions were imposed on women’s presence at sports venues, including football stadiums.
However, it took about two years until women’s presence was totally banned at stadiums. October 9, 1981 was the last time Iranian women were allowed to present their purchased tickets and enter an Iranian football stadium.
After this, for more than 37 years women were not officially allowed to enter stadiums, except on a few occasions, when very small, selective groups of women were allowed to do so upon invitation. However, the Islamic Republic only tolerated these exceptions in order to please FIFA, which demanded that Tehran allow women into the stadium.
As a result of this ban, Iran became one of the few countries in the world where women were not able to attend men’s football matches. In fact, after Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women entering football stadiums in January 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran was the only country in the world where this ban still existed.
The Women Movement’s Attempts to Change the Policy
The implementation of Iran’s male-only policy was followed by a very long period of women’s total absence from stadiums. In 1998, under President Khatami, a group of Iranian women managed, for the first time after 17 years, to enter Azadi Stadium to take part in a public ceremony to celebrate Iran’s national team qualifying for the 1998 World Cup. However, it was still impossible for them to be present at football matches.
In 2002, a number of Irish women were granted permission to attend a match between Iran and Ireland in Iran, while Iranian women were not allowed into the stadium. The very occasional attendance of non-Iranian women at Azadi Stadium continued throughout the following years, under both the administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani. The Islamic Republic used this occasional attendance to appease FIFA, which was still critical of gender discrimination at Iranian stadiums, while at the same time failing to seriously pressure Tehran to change its male-only policy.
In the mid-2000s, a group of famous women’s rights activists launched a campaign against the ban. These activists named their campaign the Defense of Women’s Right to Attend Stadiums — which was also known as the White Scarves Campaign, as they wore white scarves at their protests. On two occasions in 2005, they succeeded in breaking into Azadi Stadium to attend Iran’s World Cup qualifiers against Bahrain and South Korea, but on other occasions, the security forces prevented them from entering the stadium. Some of the members of this campaign were later summoned to the court and stood trial for “undermining national security.”
Nevertheless, the campaign managed to attract the public’s attention, such that a number of Iranian politicians began to support women’s attendance at stadiums in order to increase their own popularity. In April 2006, President Ahmadinejad announced that his administration had decided to lift the stadium ban on women, adding that special sections of stadiums would be prepared for women and families. However, this decision was harshly criticized by a number of the highest-ranking Shia clerics, and in May 2006 the Supreme Leader ordered the president to reinstate the ban “so that the Grand Ayatollahs are satisfied. Ahmadinejad never pushed the subject again.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Hassan Rouhani promised that if he was elected, the ban on women’s attendance at stadiums would be lifted. When Rouhani became president, his administration announced it planned to lay the groundwork for this reform. However, hardline media outlets, including those affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards and the Supreme Leader, strongly opposed the move, arguing that the stadiums’ rough and rude atmosphere was not suitable for women. Finally, in July 2015, the Vice President for Women and Family Affairs said that the administration had abandoned pursuing the subject “out of respect for the Grand Ayatollahs.”
In Rouhani’s second term, women’s rights movement’s efforts against the stadium-related discrimination intensified, increasing FIFA’s sensitivity over the subject. Due to this sensitivity, Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, traveled to Tehran and raised the issue during a meeting with President Rouhani in March 2018. After the meeting, Infantino said the president had promised that Iranian women would “soon” be able to enter football stadiums. Afterward, in a friendly match in October 2018 against Bolivia, as well as at the Asian Champions League’s final match in November 2018 against a Japanese team, a small, selected group of Iranian women were allowed into Azadi Stadium. However, ordinary women could not freely buy tickets to see the matches, and those who managed to do so were s family members of Iranian footballers, female employees of Iran’s football federation, and a number of female celebrities and politicians.
While some activists welcomed this change to the government’s policies regarding women’s entry to stadiums, many Iranian feminists criticized it, insisting it was a non-transparent tactic to deceive FIFA while continuing the implementation of discriminatory measures.
On June 21, 2019, the president of FIFA wrote a letter to Iran’s football federation to remind it of President Rouhani’s March 2018 promise and to demand that Iranian women be allowed to be present during the next World Cup qualifiers.
The “Blue Girl”
FIFA’s June 2019 letter was a step forward regarding the issue of women’s entry to stadiums, but few people really believed that the Iranian authorities would finally stop resisting the change.
However, a shocking incident changed the situation on an unexpected level. On September 2, 2019, football fan Sahar Khodayari set herself on fire in front of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran in protest against a possible sentence of six months in prison for having tried to enter a stadium to watch a football match. Khodayari, who was known as the “Blue Girl” because she wore the colors of her favorite team, Esteghlal, died a few days later from her injuries. Her death generated unprecedented public fury over the Islamic Republic’s ban on women at football matches. This fury affected the international public, too, pressuring FIFA to react more seriously than it had before.
As a result, a FIFA delegation traveled to Tehran on September 19, 10 days after Sahar’s death, demanding that women be allowed to freely buy tickets to watch national football matches. FIFA’s president announced on September 26 that the Iranian authorities had “guaranteed” that women would be able to freely enter stadiums to see the next World Cup qualifier game in Tehran. A day later, FIFA also announced that it would send a special delegation to Tehran on October 10 to make sure that women attended the Iran-Cambodia match on that date.
This time, the Iranian government stepped down from its four-decade controversial male-only policy, and many Iranian women managed to enter Azadi stadium upon presenting the tickets they had bought online.
Nevertheless, this development was still far from a free attendance for women at football matches, because less than 4,000 tickets were sold to Iranian women, while the stadium had the capacity for about 80,000 seats. In addition, it seems that, at best, women will only be able to go to stadiums to watch the matches played by the Iranian national team, and not those of the country’s football league.
Given the remaining restrictions, Iranian activists fighting for gender equality believe that the post-Blue Girl developments, despite their importance, must be followed by much more sweeping changes regarding women’s equal rights at sports venues.