A limited group of Iranian women were allowed to attend Asian Champions League football final in Tehran on November 10, 2018. (IRNA)

By Payam Yunesipour

March 8, 2019

Female fans of Iranian football team Persepolis have launched a new campaign calling for women to be allowed into stadiums. Appealing to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as Persepolis prepares to face Uzbek football team Pakhtakor on March 5, the fans point out on social media that, despite demands from international sporting authorities, women continue to face a ban on watching live sport.

It’s the latest in a series of campaigns and protests. The “Freedom Women,” as they have become known because they frequently gather outside Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium, have tried every imaginable way to get into the stands to watch their teams. Even before their actions, the “White Scarves” were making their voices heard. Back in 2005 during the qualifying games for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, they gathered outside the gates of Azadi Stadium as Iran prepared to compete against Bahrain. On this occasion, authorities briefly opened the gates to women, and some of them were able to watch the game that sent Iran to the World Cup. Familiar names such as human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, journalist and human rights activist Asieh Amini, and other human rights activists were among those allowed in on that day. Former reformist president Mohammad Khatami also attended the match.

In 2002, the newspaper Etemad published the first report about women who sneak into stadiums disguised as men. Prior to this, the practice had gone unnoticed and even the acclaimed 2006 movie Offside by Iranian director Jafar Panahi, a fictional story of a group of women getting arrested while trying to enter a stadium disguised as men, did not draw much public attention. But, little by little, women found it harder to get into stadiums, and authorities stepped up measures to keep them out.

As social media grew in prominence, photographs of women sneaking into stadiums disguised as men were more widely shared and circulated. One of the women who did this was Zahra Khoshnavaz, a poet, writer, theater director and a Persepolis fan. She was praised for posting selfies on her Instagram page, but she also became the target of attacks by pro-regime elements.

Closed-Circuit TV Cameras to Catch Women

Azadi is an old stadium and is badly in need of repairs. But in 2018, it was equipped with 500 closed-circuit television cameras to spot women who try to sneak into the stadium disguised as men. The number of staff carrying out inspections was also increased.

Now, as the 2019 AFC Champions League competitions continue, female fans’ tactics are back in the limelight.

Neither the AFC nor the international football federation (FIFA) have stayed silent about the ban on Iranian woman spectators in stadiums. But it is also worth noting that Gianni Infantino, FIFA’s president, has been treating Mehdi Taj, the president of Iran’s Football Federation, with kid gloves. After Syrian female football fans were allowed into Azadi Stadium during a World Cup qualifying football match between Iran and Syria in September 2016, Taj said: “the entry of Iranian women into stadiums is not something that occupies the minds of either the regime or the football federation.”

In December, Mehdi Taj announced his candidacy for the vice presidency of the AFC and for membership to the FIFA Council.

 But under its charter, FIFA is duty-bound to prevent any gender discrimination and must demand that Iran’s Football Federation open stadium gates to women.

The most effective champion of the rights of Iranian women at FIFA could be Fatma Samoura, the first female Secretary General of FIFA. She has a 21-year record at the United Nations in various capacities and is known as one of the most distinguished human rights activists in Africa. In November 2018 Samoura held a meeting with Maryam Ghashghaei Shojaei, a prominent Iranian human rights campaigner who made headlines at last summer’s World Cup with her #NoBan4Women sign protesting against the men-only stadium rule. “We will keep engaging with them [Iranian authorities], as well as the public and [FIFA] authorities to work toward stadium access for all,” Samoura said after the meeting.

Iranian authorities have made various attempts to mollify FIFA and AFC, putting on apparent shows of leniency. For example, on November 11, the Ministry of Sports handpicked a group of women to watch the Asian Champions League final between Persepolis FC and Japan’s Kashima Antlers. On that same day, Gianni Infantino was seen taking a walk with Mehdi Taj in Azadi Stadium right in front of the handpicked group — who were not members of the general public, but reporters and women belonging to footballers’ families. Infantino then returned to his seat, apparently happy in the illusion that the gates of Azadi had been opened to women.

Not the “People’s Problem”

But after that game, the doors were slammed shut once again. A week later, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Director General of Tehran’s Justice Bureau, explained the situation in a way that everybody would understand: “The presence of women in stadiums is not the people’s problem today,” he told reporters. “Solve other problems.”

Esmaili refrained from mentioning what people’s “real” problems actually were, but he gave a good account of what Iranian men of the law are really like. “Today FIFA says that women must be allowed into stadiums,” he said. “Then the next day it will say that men and women must sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. Another day it might bring up the question of hijab. We must not treat vulgar subjects as more worthwhile than they really are.”  Esmaili conceded that women had been allowed into the stadium for one time so that FIFA would not ban the Iranian football federation — and suggested that it would be the last time.

One of the saddest aspects of the ongoing story concerns the selected women allowed to watch the match in November. They were deceived into believing that if they went to Azadi Stadium they could make the regime understand that the presence of women would not “pollute” the atmosphere of stadiums, and even that it could make it much healthier. But the Iranian Football Federation, led by Mehdi Taj, sticks with the regime. A large number of the federation’s managers come from hardliner Revolutionary Guards and conservative factions — men like Mehdi Taj himself or Mohammad Reza Saket, the former general secretary of the Iranian Football Federation.

So now Freedom Women are again appealing to the AFC,  asking it to “help Persepolis female fans enter Azadi Stadium.” Perhaps the AFC and FIFA are still under the impression that nothing is stopping female football fans in Iran from entering that and other stadiums.

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.