A select group of women watched the friendly with Bolivia in Azadi Stadium in Tehran on October 16, 2018. (ISNA)

October 7, 2019

Iran’s plan to cap the number of women who can attend a football World Cup qualifier match in Tehran is discriminatory, deceptive, and dangerous, Human Rights Watch said today.

Tickets to the historic match between Iran and Cambodia on October 10 – the first in 40 years where women could legally buy tickets – went on sale Thursday, October 3. The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) estimates that more than 3,500 tickets were bought by women, and that as tickets are released they are “sold out in minutes.”

On September 22, 2019, FIFA President Gianni Infantino said women will finally be allowed into Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) stadium to watch the match on October 10, which was FIFA’s deadline by which “women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran for all football matches.” However, Iranian authorities have capped the number of women who can attend at 4,600 out of a stadium capacity of 100,000 seats.

“Iran’s ban on half the population attending football matches has led to women and girls risking arrest, jail, and even their lives to challenge it,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Any concessions by FIFA to limit the number of women who can attend stadiums only empowers Iran’s hardliners who have previously pre-selected women to attend while keeping the discriminatory restrictions in place.”

The effective five percent quota on seats for women contravenes FIFA’s constitution, statutes, and its human rights policy. Article 4 of its statutes states that discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion” of the FIFA member. FIFA’s human rights policy places “particular emphasis on identifying and addressing differential impacts based on gender and on promoting gender equality.”

Iran has long sold stadium tickets by gender, allowing only men to buy them. Iranian women and girls who want to attend football matches have defied the ban for many years by disguising themselves as men. Many have posted on social media to show their defiance of the ban and have written to FIFA’s leaders, pressing them to enforce their own gender nondiscrimination rules.

Iran is the only country in the world to ban women from attending football and other sports in stadiums. While this 40-year-old ban is not written into law or regulation, Iranian authorities have ruthlessly enforced it. The ban has led to arrests, beatings, jailings, detention, and abuses. In September, a female football fan, Sahar Khodayari, dubbed “Blue Girl” for the colors of her favorite team, Esteghlal, died after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse when she feared being jailed for six months after attending a match at Azadi stadium disguised as a man.

Two Iranian women who have campaigned against the stadium ban told Human Rights Watch about the practical obstacles and dangers for women.

“We could be facing years of prison,” said an activist from OpenStadiums, who remains anonymous for her protection and who has confronted FIFA about ending the ban. “The ‘bearded ladies’ [women in disguise] are out on bail. These women aren’t activists. They are fans who just wanted to attend games. And if they send you to jail, you have a criminal record – even though it’s a criminal record for wanting to go to a football game. But the criminal record follows you everywhere for the rest of your life. When you apply for jobs, you won’t get one, and so on.”

“If they [Iranian authorities] propose different quotas of tickets, different gates to go in to and different sections to sit in, they are treating women differently from men,” said Maryam Shojaei, who has long campaigned to end the stadium ban in Iran and is the sister of Iran’s football team captain. “This is discrimination. When authorities have women all in one section, it causes big problems. It puts all the pressure on women to prove that the process to enable them to attend stadiums is okay.”

Although Infantino has reiterated FIFA’s position that “women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely,” FIFA has long allowed Iran to ban women and failed to enforce its own rules, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 19, FIFA stated that “The inspections on site showed that there are no noteworthy operational obstacles to these measures being implemented at the Azadi stadium, starting with the game on 10 October 2019.”

However, there are still no women’s restrooms for female fans in stadiums outside of Azadi. For years, the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) has rejected adding women’s restrooms, citing “budgetary issues.”

“FIFA should earmark funds to build women’s restrooms to ensure the inclusion of everyone,” Shojaei said. “The leagues are more frequent and important than World Cup matches, and FIFA must give them a deadline for club league matches so that families can go together to watch the games.”

FIFA should use its leverage with the Iranian authorities to urgently overturn Iran’s discriminatory stadium limits and allow all women in Iran who want to attend football matches to do so, Human Rights Watch said.

Beyond women challenging Iran’s ban by disguising themselves, women’s rights advocates from OpenStadiums and #NoBan4Women have written to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation for years with evidence of the country’s discrimination to demand that the federations uphold their own rules.

In March 2018, Infantino attended a match in Iran’s Azadi stadium, during which 35 women were arrested for trying to get into the stadium to see the tournament. While attending a November 2018 match at the stadium, he gave undue praise to the Iranian government for the presence of women as “a real breakthrough,” though only a select group of women were allowed to attend.

Following these events and further detention of female stadium activists in June, Infantino wrote a letter to Mehdi Taj, the head of the Iranian football federation. FIFA’s public letter set a July 15 deadline for Taj to inform Infantino of the “concrete steps” the Iranian government was intending to take to lift its ban so that women will be allowed to attend 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Infantino expressed disappointment in the letter that Iran has reneged on its commitments to open stadiums to women.

On August 13, the Iranian government detained three women who had dressed as men to circumvent the stadium ban and an award-winning photo journalist who had documented their efforts.

“For many years, Iran’s football federation and government officials have flouted FIFA’s rules on nondiscrimination through intimidation, arrests, and outright deception,” Worden said. “FIFA should be gravely concerned for the safety of Iranian female fans who put themselves at risk by challenging the discriminatory limits on ticket sales and stadium access.”

Human Rights Watch 

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.