Iranian Women Attend Men’s Soccer Game, Standing Firm Against State Ban and Hardline Threats
October 17, 2018 – After decades of activists peacefully campaigning against Iran’s state ban on women in sports stadiums, dozens of females were allowed to watch a men’s soccer match between the national team and Bolivia on October 16 in Tehran.
Immediately after a limited number of women were allowed into the capital city’s Azadi Stadium to watch a men’s home game for the first time in 35 years, Iran’s attorney general threatened to “confront” anyone who allows the “trend” to continue.
“The authorities in Iran are trying to prevent women and men from being treated equally, but Iranian women are standing firm and step-by-step chipping away at the ban on their presence at stadiums,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“Temporarily relaxing the ban is not enough,” said Ghamei. “President Rouhani, who has spoken out for women’s rights, should forcefully and publicly push to officially end this notorious ban.”
Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from sports stadiums. The unofficial policy has been backed by religious conservatives in Iran since 1980, a year after the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Activists inside and outside the country have protested against the ban by undertaking various peaceful actions, including entering stadiums disguised as men and calling on the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) to demand that Iran end the ban.
The ban is a violation of FIFA’s own rules for World Cup participating teams. Article 4 of FIFA’s statutes say discrimination of any kind against a group of people is “strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
CHRI’s most recent campaign against the ban included a music video by the Iranian-language band, Abjeez, launched ahead of the 2018 World Cup. “Stadium,” which was released with English subtitles, has been viewed over 500,000 times across multiple social media networks.
“I Will Fight Until They Are Wide Open”
Despite repeated calls this year for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to lift the ban, it was only temporarily relaxed for the October 16, 2018 match, when an estimated 100 women were allowed into Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch Iran play a “friendly match” against the national Bolivian team —with many other female fans left standing outside.
Those women who were allowed in were mostly national soccer players or the relatives of the men’s soccer team. A number of women journalists, sports officials and actresses also cheered on the game from a dedicated section in the stadium that was blocked off from male spectators.
“For years, Iranian religious leaders objected to women looking at male athletes’ physiques but now that women have been allowed into the stadium, we can conclude that they are okay with it,” a leading activist on the issue told CHRI.
“The trip by a group of women lawmakers to Qom in [December 2018] to talk to the religious leaders about this issue apparently made a difference,” added the activist who required anonymity for security purposes.
Iranian officials and clerics have attempted to justify the discriminatory ban with various statements over the years, including claiming the stadium’s “infrastructure is not conducive to accepting women.”
This week Iran’s attorney general said women shouldn’t be allowed to see men in shorts in a fierce statement against the ban being officially lifted.
“It’s problematic when women looking at men’s half-naked bodies,” said Mohammad Jafar Montazeri. “It undermines the country’s Islamic norms.”
“The media outlets that support women’s presence in the stadium should give a convincing answer to this problem,” he added. “I advise the officials that if this trend continues we will confront it because we should not be promoting sin and immorality.”
But many Iranian users took to social media to express an opposing viewpoint, including celebrities who are expected to avoid making statements against state policies.
“Hoping for the day when half of Azadi (Stadium in Tehran) will be yours,” tweeted soccer player Hossein Mahini, a member of the national Team Melli.
Other Iranian commentators warned against being misled by temporary relaxations of the ban—including earlier this year when women were allowed to watch televised FIFA matches inside the stadium—which they feared might distract from the ultimate goal of getting the ban officially and permanently lifted.
“I was left behind the stadium’s gate tonight,” tweeted journalist Niloufar Hamedi. “I don’t have any problem with the women who went in and in fact I’m thrilled for their experience.”
“I believe that the loosening of the locks of the gates indicates that the gentlemen have retreated,” she added. “I will fight until they are wide open.”
Women in Iran have been subjected to harassment and arrests for peacefully protesting the ban. In March 2018, 35 women were arrested for trying to attend a match between two Iranian men’s teams that was attended by FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
“Women in Iran have been peacefully protesting against this discriminatory ban despite the fact that they have been subjected to harassment and arrests since it was put in place,” said Ghaemi.
“It’s long past due for the Iranian government to listen to international sports organizations and women’s rights activists around the world and end this indefensible ban once and for all,” he added.