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

By Payam Yunesipour

June 8, 2019

“This is a real example of vulgarity,” said Ahmad Alamolhoda, the leader of Mashhad’s Friday prayers and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in the province of Razavi Khorasan, after he learned that a number of women had gone to a stadium to watch a volleyball game. “The sanctity of women must not be polluted by the filth of stadiums,” he said.

On Thursday, June 6, a day before the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicked off in France, Iranians saw the results of their authorities saving women from “vulgarity” and ensuring their “sanctity.” A group of five women had gathered outside the western gate of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, hoping to go inside to watch a friendly football match between Iran and Syria.

But it seems that football matches between Iran and Syria have become a story of the sufferings of Iranian women. The first time, in September 2017, when Iran and Syria were vying to qualify for the World Cup, police opened the gates of Azadi Stadium to Syrian women but kept Iranian women out and barred them from watching their own national team in action. When the women objected, the police told them “pick up a Syrian flag and go in.”

The international football body FIFA, custodian of football events in member countries around the world, has long been silent on gender discrimination against female Iranian football fans. This despite a declaration in its own statute that “Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

FIFA has spoken out against the 40-year stadium ban for female fans only once – in March 2018 when FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino had a short meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the airport in Tehran.

“I was promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon,” Infantino told a press conference later. “[Rouhani] told me that in countries such as [Iran], these things take a bit of time.” He added that “there are two ways to deal with this matter — either we criticize, we sanction, we condemn, we don’t speak and we cut relations. Or we go [to Iran] and have a discussion and try to convince the leaders of the country that they should give [women] access to stadiums. I went for the second option.”

Just for the Show

Infantino’s conversation with Rouhani had an effect – though only briefly. The gates of Azadi Stadium were opened to women, but only for one match, between Tehran’s Perspeolis FC and Japan’s Kashima Antlers. But there was a catch even then. The Ministry of Sports handpicked about 500 women, from among police personnel, families of footballs, women footballers and women reporters, excluding female fans who were not specially chosen for the show.

Infantino was nevertheless there to see women allowed into the stadium. According to reporters present at the time, immediately after entering the stadium, Infantino asked Mehdi Taj, head of Iran’s Football Federation, about the women allowed to watch the match inside the stadium. Taj invited him to visit the special section set aside for woman spectators. While they were visiting, Iran’s state-run television stopped its live broadcast from inside the stadium. And the charade for Infantino’s benefit was happening even as police attacked and arrested women outside the stadium. A number of those women were forced into police vans and later dumped in deserted parts of the city.

A week after the events of last year, Gholamhossein Esmaili, Director-General of Tehran’s Justice Bureau, told reporters that a handful of handpicked women had been allowed into the stadium on the one occasion “so that [Iran’s FIFA membership] would not be suspended.” And in plain language, he added that “The presence of women in stadiums is not a problem today. [We should] worry about other problems.”

A year later, in March 2019, the “Freedom Women,” as they have come to be known because of their frequent gatherings outside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium – so named because “Azadi” is the Persian word for “Freedom” – posted a message to the website of the Asian Football Confederation: “Help female Persepolis fans enter Azadi Stadium.”

Falling on Deaf FIFA Ears

FIFA, however, has been deaf to appeals from Iranian women. Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s first female Secretary-General, who has a record of fighting for women’s rights, has remained silent. The lack of engagement by FIFA officials can be attributed to the friendly relations between Taj, the Iranian Football Federation head, and FIFA’s own leadership.

FIFA’s silence has even continued still in the face of the latest attack on women during the friendly Iran-Syria match.

The women had chosen to gather at the stadium on the day of the game after one of them had purchased tickets online, ostensibly for women; immediately after, however, the purchase was cancelled and she was refunded for the tickets. The website then cease to offer a “Women’s tickets” option.

Azadi Stadium is generally not particularly busy for friendly matches. The women hoped that they would be able to enter the stadium and watch the match from a quiet corner of the venue. But minutes after the women had gathered outside the western gate, they were confronted by police officers; and unlike on most previous occasions, the police quickly moved against the women. One of the police officers, swearing, ordered the women to immediately leave.

Soon after the incident, a video was posted online showing three distressed and weeping young women outside the stadium. A woman from the group had attempted to film the officer who was swearing. He attacked her and threw her to the ground. An officer put his foot to the chest of this woman, and grabbed her phone; the other women tried to help, but all were beaten, and two were arrested.

“We are a small group of women, standing on the grass in front of Azadi Stadium’s western gate,” says one of the young women in the video. “We were not doing anything. We weren’t chanting slogans or even talking. We didn’t even have an Iranian flag. But they kicked us. They beat us. They swore at us without us having done anything wrong.”

Iranian women continue to be denied the right to enter stadiums, they continue to be beaten and arrested and FIFA continues to support these violations of its own statute by remaining silent in the face of discrimination and violence against women.

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.