Iranian Women Attend Football Match in Major Challenge to Stadium Ban, But Discriminatory Restrictions Persist
October 9, 2019 – Nearly four decades after women were banned from sports stadiums in Iran, a few thousand tickets were sold to female fans ahead of an October 10, 2019, World Cup qualifier match between the Iranian and Cambodian national teams.
But the number of tickets sold to women was reportedly capped at around 4,000 despite FIFA’s demand that women be allowed to purchase tickets “freely.” Female photographers were meanwhile denied press credentials to prevent the publication of closeup shots of female spectators.
“We’re witnessing a tug-of-war between officials who support the discriminatory ban on women in stadiums, and those who don’t,” said Jasmin Ramsey, Communications Director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“On the one hand, the authorities allowed thousands of women to purchase tickets, but women photographers have not been given press credentials, and state TV may not air footage that shows women fans,” she added.
“These restrictions which prevent women from attending the game on an equal footing to men highlight the need to keep the spotlight on Iran until it comes into full compliance with FIFA statutes and ends this discriminatory policy once and for all,” Ramsey said.
When tickets for the qualifier match went on sale online on October 3, seats in the allotted female-only sections were increased from 2,000 to about 3,500 due to high demand.
It remains to be seen whether the ban will be fully lifted and women allowed to buy the same amount of tickets as men for future games.
Female Photographers Denied Press Credentials
It’s unclear which individual or institution issued the order to deny female photographers press credentials.
“We are carrying letters back and forth between the Sports Ministry and the Football Federation,” tweeted photographer Parto Joghtaee on October 3. “The ministry officials say we need approval from the federation and the federation officials say that’s the ministry’s job. Foreign journalists and photographers have been approved and received ID cards, but we have been given the runaround for a week with no one giving us a straight answer.”
The ban on women photographers was “ordered by higher-ups,” a female photographer told CHRI. “Officials want to prevent photographs of female audience members from being published.”
“The Sports Ministry’s public relations office told us that the [state-funded] Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting [IRIB] has threatened not to air the match if there are female photographers in the stadium,” said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“This is unacceptable,” she said, adding that there is no justifiable reason for the ban since photographers with telephoto zoom lenses that can capture distant images will still be able to photograph women spectators.
State Broadcaster Producer Threatens to Boycott Match
Mehdi Hashemi, the producer of one of IRIB’s soccer shows, said that the state broadcaster will boycott the match and refuse to air footage of it if female photographers are let into the stadium.
The sports-focused newspaper, Iran Varzeshi, reported that IRIB officials have held several meetings to decide whether to air the match.
“There’s no logic to it,” another female photographer told CHRI. “Three weeks ago, female photographers were allowed to cover an international volleyball match [in Tehran]. But now they say we can’t go to this [soccer] match. Until yesterday, the excuse was the IRIB. Today they say it has nothing to do with the IRIB and it’s an order from higher-ups. But they won’t explain up where?”
She added: “There have always been restrictions on female photographers in soccer games. There have been exceptions, for instance in the [international] match between Persepolis and Kashima, when a select few were allowed inside the stadium. But for this match, everything has been closed off. They won’t even let us sit with the female spectators.”
In November 2018, IRIB aired a football match between Iran’s Persepolis and Japan’s Kashima teams, which was attended by Gianni Infantino, the president of the world soccer body, FIFA, at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. But IRIB did not show Iranian women cheering in the stands.
At the time, a restricted number of women who had been individually approved were allowed to attend that match.
Two days before the October 10 match, Iranian social media users shared photos of the women’s section inside Azadi Stadium being cordoned off while using the hashtag #WakeUpFIFA.
“These fences were up during the match between Persepolis and Kashima,” tweeted journalist Somayeh Malekian on October 9. “Why have they put them up again?”
Despite the ban on female photographers, female journalists have been issued ID cards for the match between Iran and Cambodia, but they will be segregated from their male colleagues, CHRI has learned.
“The authorities have separated the booths for male and female journalists, even though they shared a common space covering previous matches,” said a female reporter who spoke to CHRI. “The authorities had also said that each media outlet could only have one female reporter at the match, but that problem has been solved and they have separated their booths from the men’s instead.”
“Female fans cannot enter the stadium through the main gate,” the source added. “They have to enter from the bus terminal gate.”
Police have also put up signs designating sections 19 and 20 of Azadi Stadium’s parking areas exclusively for women.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) will deploy “about 150 guards from the Special Women’s Unit,” Brig. Gen. Hassan Karami told the IRGC-aligned Fars News Agency.
Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from stadiums. The ban is a violation of FIFA’s statutes that prohibit discriminatory practices by member teams.
“FIFA reiterated its firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely and that the number of women who attend the stadiums be determined by the demand, resulting in ticket sales,” the organization said in a statement on September 21, 2019.
“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,” said FIFA. “In that respect, the delegation also discussed the detailed ticketing procedures as well as operational procedures required and in line with relevant FIFA regulations.”
A FIFA delegation is due to attend the October 10 match and observe the extent of Iran’s compliance with the world football body’s statutes.
“Under normal circumstances, the match between Iran and Cambodia would not have created any excitement,” a sports photographer told CHRI. “Even right now, the stadium is going to be half empty. But this is a good test to see how the Iranian Football Federation and Sports Ministry officials will act. Will this trend continue?”
“Iranian families went to Azadi Stadium to watch Iran’s last two matches with Portugal and Spain in the 2018 World Cup in Russia on the big screen,” said the photographer. “Women were there along with all sections of society. There were devout women, too, and there were no problems. So, what’s the problem? Let those people come and see the match without any restrictions.”
In October 2018, a small number of Iranian female fans were also allowed into Azadi Stadium for the match between Iran and Bolivia, but they were mostly hand-picked relatives of the Iranian players.
FIFA increased its pressure on Iran following the death of Sahar Khodayari in September 2019 a few days after she set herself on fire outside a courthouse in Tehran where she was facing prosecution for trying to enter Azadi Stadium disguised as a man.
“Allowing women to buy thousands of tickets is an important step towards lifting the discriminatory ban,” said Ramsey. “We can consider it fully lifted when women are allowed the same opportunities to buy tickets as men, and when they’re able to attend games as sports fans without gender-specific restrictions.”