500 women attend men’s soccer league match in Tehran; a first in 40 years

They wore blue and white caps, hung the flag of their club, Esteghlal Tehran, around their necks and some even painted the numbers of their favorite players on their cheeks. Long before Thursday’s (Aug 25) match between Esteghlal and Mes Kerman kicked off, many female fans were in a boisterous mood off the pitch.

After all, this was the first time in over 40 years that women were able to attend a league soccer game. Just 24 hours earlier, the Ministry of Youth and Sports had announced that some 28,000 tickets would be available for women.

However, for the start, there were only 500 women in the stands, as Iran’s leadership had allowed only selected women to buy tickets. Among them were many of the players’ wives.

‘Sad and jealous’

Other women, like Esteghlal supporter Sara (name changed for her safety) of OpenStadiums, a group that campaigns for better access to sporting events for women in Iran, had no chance of getting a ticket.

“You can’t imagine how sad and jealous I am that I can’t buy the tickets,” Sara tells DW. “The number of tickets they sold was very few. They gave a lot of tickets to relatives.”

Sports reporter Maedeh Alagheman, who covered the match, hopes things will improve in the future.

“For the first game, you have to accept it this way out of necessity, with only 500 female spectators,” he told DW. “However, it will be unacceptable if it continues like this in the next few league games.”

The Blue Girl Protest

Sahar Khodayari was also a dedicated football fan for her club Esteghlal Tehran. In March 2019, the then 29-year-old dressed as a man and snuck into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium in a long coat and fan blue wig. Women were not allowed to enter the stadium at the time, as seeing men in shorts was considered a sin by the moral guardians who came to power in Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Khodayari was captured and arrested after the game on charges of “lack of Islamic dress and resistance.” She was subsequently sent to jail for three days and charged with “violating the law of chastity, immoral behavior and insulting the guardians of the law.”

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According to Amnesty International, in September 2019, a Tehran Revolutionary Court was due to hand down a verdict in Khodayari’s case, but was delayed because a judge was not available. However, he was reportedly told that he could face a six-month jail sentence.

It was then that the Khodayari decided to engage in an extreme form of protest; he stood in front of the courthouse, doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. Bystanders rushed to put out the flames, but it was too late to save him from serious burns, from which he later died.

The funeral was held near his hometown, Qom. The regime had prevented his family from attending and prohibited reporting on the funeral. However, Khodayari’s story went viral on social media. She became known as the “Blue Girl” because of the Esteghlal club colors, a symbol of protest against the oppression of women in Iran.

“Women should be able to enter football matches”

World soccer’s governing body, FIFA, also weighed in on the matter. The organization’s president, Gianni Infantino, traveled to Tehran to meet a few weeks later with then-president Hassan Rouhani and then-president of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI), Mehdi Taj.

“FIFA reiterated its firm and clear position that women should be allowed to freely enter football matches and that the number of women attending stadiums should be determined by demand, resulting in ticket sales.” the organization said in a statement.

“FIFA’s position is firm and clear: women must be allowed to enter football stadiums in Iran,” the statement said. “For all football matches.”

FIFA has previously suspended the Iranian Football Association for breach of statutes.

“The transition committee set up by FIFA after the first suspension in 2007 deliberately misled the world governing body,” Mohammad Heyrani, a former sports presenter on Iranian state television, told DW.

“Contrary to what was stipulated by FIFA, the drafting of the required new version of the FFIRI statutes at that time did not prevent political interference in the affairs of the federation,” Heyrani said.

The Iranian parliament never accepted the autonomy of the FFIRI, the journalist said.

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In 2018, under previous pressure from FIFA, the arch-conservative clergy had allowed stadium doors to be opened to female fans at international matches, but in April 2022 women were once again denied entry to the qualifying match. for the World Cup between Iran and Lebanon despite having valid tickets. Worse yet, security forces outside the stadium allegedly used pepper spray on women who had insisted that they be allowed into the stadium as promised.

Possible suspension from FIFA

The FFIRI was once suspended by FIFA for government interference in football matters. The ban, imposed in 2006, was lifted within weeks. Now, the FFIRI could face a second ban for similar reasons, as well as failure to comply with the requirement to allow women into stadiums.

“Currently, most Iranians would welcome a suspension of their own FA so that the system can be fundamentally rebuilt,” Heyrani said.

Sara from OpenStadiums is also ambivalent.

“Soccer is a sport that gives hope to people who are dealing with really difficult situations in the country,” he said. “We use it as a tool for changes. especially for women’s rights. We use sport to open spaces for women in society.”

He said he really didn’t want to see FFIRI suspended again, but “on the other hand, when there are no consequences for human rights violations, you expect FIFA to react and stop these human rights violations.”

In response to questions from DW, FIFA praised the presence of fans in the stadium. “FIFA was pleased to learn that some women were allowed to attend a league match in Tehran yesterday and congratulates the government and football authorities for this step in the right direction,” the organization said.

Despite all the criticism, for Sara and other football fans, Thursday’s match with 500 women in the stands does represent a glimmer of hope.

“We want (women attending matches) to become something common, like going to the movies,” Sara said. “We will definitely continue to talk to FIFA and they will put pressure on the Iranian FA not to back down on this.”

(This article was originally published by DW)

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