Iranian football supporters cheer for their national team during a screening of the Russia 2018 World Cup Group B football match between Iran and Spain in Azadi stadium in Tehran, June 20, 2018. (AFP)

August 29, 2019

Iran’s Football Federation has announced that Azadi Stadium doors will be open to women fans wanting to cheer on the national team when it faces Cambodia on October 10 — but it has stopped short of lifting the ban on them attending domestic matches.

The news was announced in two statements over two consecutive days. “The gates of Azadi Stadium will be open to women on the day of the Iran-Cambodia game,” Mehdi Taj, president of Iran’s Football Federation said on Saturday, August 24. “From now on, women can watch games by the national football team close up.”

It was confirmed by Jamshid Taghizadeh, a sports ministry deputy, the next day. “On October 10, women can go to Azadi Stadium to watch the game between Iran’s national football team and Cambodia in the qualifying games for the [2022] Qatar World Cup.” Taken together, the two announcements suggest that the gates that have been closed to Iranian women for four decades are being pushed ajar a little. However, the opening is tiny — and there is no guarantee that it is irreversible.

But recently, Mehdi Taj has threatened journalists that cover football. “Reporters who ask irrelevant questions will be suspended from reporting on football for four years,” the Iranian Football Federation president announced at a parliamentarian Cultural Committee meeting. “We have served notice to the media that they can only ask questions from football head coaches about a specific game. They are not allowed to ask irrelevant questions. If a reporter does ask irrelevant questions, first the media director will warn him and then his press card will be confiscated. The law permits us to suspend him from reporting on football for four years.” The subject of women at stadiums would presumably be one of those “irrelevant” topics according to the federation. He could also be thinking about a press conference during which a reporter asked Jürgen Klopp, the head coach of Liverpool Football Club, if he could hug him. Or perhaps he had in mind Paris Saint-Germain Football Club press conferences over the last three weeks, where reporters have focused their questions not on the games but about the team’s forward Neymar, who is about to be transferred.

The Iranian Football Federation is a member of FIFA and must follow its charter and regulations — whether it pertains to the rights of women or the rights of the media. According to the charter and the rules, which include the recently-issued disciplinary codes, a member federation cannot suspend or ban a journalist from football events.

In June, FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino sent a letter to Iran’s football federation, announcing in no uncertain terms that it had until July 15 “to implement FIFA’s new disciplinary codes and to provide for the presence of women in all Iranian sports stadiums.” The letter should have signified an end to the ban on women in Iranian stadiums, and yet sports minister Masoud Soltanifar told the state-owned newspaper Iran-e Varzeshi (“Iran Sports”) that “FIFA has issued no ultimatum about the presence of women in stadiums.” He promised, however, that 10 percent of the seats at Azadi Stadiums would be reserved for women when the national football team plays.

This stance was echoed by Mehdi Taj, who denied FIFA had placed any pressure on Iran to allow women into stadiums. Instead, he said that when and if “necessary infrastructures” are ready, women can “only” be present at national team games.

IranWire contacted the international football federation on August 6 and asked: “Has FIFA accepted that women can only attend stadiums in Iran when the national team is playing?” It gave the following answer: “As FIFA and its president have repeatedly announced, our goal is that women should be permitted to attend all football games in Iran. We are still engaged in negotiations over this very important issue with the Iranian government and Football Federation officials. Through these talks we want to be certain that Iranian women can be present at stadiums in the [World Cup] qualifying games that start in October.”

A History of Skirting FIFA Rules

The Iranian Football Federation has a long history of bypassing FIFA rules when it comes to women’s rights. For instance, on November 11, 2018, the Ministry of Sports and Youth handpicked a group of women to watch the Asian Champions League final between Persepolis FC and Japan’s Kashima Antlers. The ministry put on a show of these chosen women entering the stadium while Gianni Infantino was watching. But then when FIFA’s president, accompanied by Mehdi Taj, started walking toward where woman spectators were seated to talk to them, state-run TV interrupted its live broadcast to prevent Iranian women from getting the absurd idea that they would be welcome into stadiums in the future. Infantino then returned to his seat, apparently happy in the illusion that the gates of Azadi had been opened to women.

But now the Iranian government and the football federation’s politics have entered a new phase and they are scrambling to catch up. For two weeks, the federation has been holding Iran Pro League matches without women spectators. The start of the Pro League season had been delayed for a full month because the football federation claimed the necessary “infrastructure” was not yet ready. A friendly game between the National Football League and Iran’s Under-23 Football Team went ahead without any spectators because the federation had not received permission from the Supreme National Security Council to allow women into stadiums.

Eventually, however, the sports ministry ordered the federation to hold Pro League games without female spectators. This move was taken to test FIFA’s reaction to the shell game played by Iran: two weeks of Pro League games without any women watching and then one national team match with women — a repeat of the show that they put on with handpicked women in the 2018 game between Persepolis FC and Japan’s Kashima Antlers.

Jamshid Taghizadeh, the deputy sports minister, had a role in the shell game. “There is no legal ban [on women spectators],” he said. “We just have to prepare the infrastructure and this is being done.” This statement was more for the benefit of FIFA than for Iranian women hoping to be allowed into sports stadiums.

Taghizadeh also claimed that October 10 would be the first time that women would attend a game at Azadi Stadium. But this is not the case. Besides the Persepolis-Kashima game, the stadium also hosted women for a friendly game between the Iranian and Bolivian national teams in October 2018. Again, this was a show for the benefit of FIFA. At the time, nobody claimed that the “infrastructure” for the presence of women was ready. Instead, they put up a fence to separate stands for men and women and allowed in a group of women who were again handpicked by the sports ministry, the football federation and the police.

But there was another similar occasion prior to this. Before the 2015 presidential election, the reformist candidate Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, who had been the head of the National Sports Organization of Iran under President Khatami, brought a number of female relatives of national football team players and TV actresses to the stadium. This was purely a publicity stunt and nothing came out of it.

Before Taghizadeh became a deputy minister, he regularly frequented the offices of top-level Iranian officials. He was deputy head of the National Sports Organization, the predecessor of the Ministry of Sports and Youth, and was the deputy for provincial affairs at the Ministry of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare, as well as the Managing Director of the National Retirement Fund and a member of the fund’s board of directors.

His résumé also includes presidencies at the Gymnastics Federation and the Bowling and Billiard Federation. He was the mayor of the East Azerbaijani cities of Tabriz and Mianeh and for a time he was the director of the National Sports Organization’s bureaus in East Azerbaijan and Tehran provinces.

Only for the Ears of FIFA

So when Taghizadeh gives assurances that there is no “legal ban” on women in stadiums there is little reason to doubt him. But the catch is that he wants FIFA to hear him, not Iranian women. “We are preparing the groundwork for women’s attendance at all international events and we exercise no gender discrimination,” he has said. The phrase “no gender discrimination” is of course meant for FIFA, but the mention of “international events” means Iran Pro League games can be held without women being present.

To prove this point, on August 12 the Revolutionary Guards arrested six women to prevent them from entering stadiums. One of the group’s friends told IranWire that the arrests followed complaints from the head of Iran’s football federation, Mehdi Taj, and his request that the Guards stop women from entering the stadiums, particularly now that the Pro League is underway.

Among the detainees was Forough Alayi, the first Iranian woman to win the top prize in the WordPress Photo awards. She received the “Golden Eye” award and given an honorary diploma in photography in 2019. A photographer for Donya-ye Eqtesad newspaper, she has regularly tackled the subject of women being banned from entering stadiums and has documented women’s illegal presence at matches — which has earned her awards but also landed her in jail.

The best-known activist among the detainees was Zahra Khoshnavaz, who was nicknamed “the bearded girl” in 2017. A poet, author, musician and photographer, Khoshnavaz has disguised herself as a man in order to go into stadiums. Last year she told IranWire: “When people notice that I am a girl in the stadium, they try to hide and protect me from police officers.”

The six women were released on a bail amount of 500 million tomans ($40,000) and had to pledge that they would not make another attempt to enter stadiums — a direct contradiction of the “no gender discrimination” Jamshid Taghizadeh has claimed.

The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization has also reportedly been involved in federation head Mehdi Taj’s arguments with journalists. In 2017 there were rumors that Taj appealed to intelligence agents about taking action against journalists who criticized the football federation.

Mehdi Taj’s links with the Guards’ Intelligence were also confirmed by Ali Kafashian, his predecessor as president of the federation, during a live TV program. Is Taj, little by little, turning Iran’s professional football into a national security environment?

FIFA’s rules are clear, whether it is about the rights of fans or the treatment of the press. For instance, a sports correspondent who has registered to cover the World Cup or the UEFA European Football Championship and has received FIFA approval can enter stadiums in the host country without gaining permission from that country’s football federation. And if the host country’s foreign ministry refuses to grant that reporter a visa, FIFA can fine the country’s football federation or even suspend it.

The Iranian Football Federation, however, acts as an independent body and enforces its own arbitrary rules — whether it is about women in stadiums or reporters who ask difficult questions.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.