Iran has systematically limited access of women to men’s sports matches in the past 42 years. However, in the match that led to Iran’s qualification to the Qatar 2022 World Cup, Iranian authorities claim that tickets were sold to 2000 women. Women’s rights groups however, say that women spectators were preselected from women who support the state and its ideal hijab.
This move comes after FIFA – International Federation of Association Football – pressured Iran to allow women into sports stadiums as part of its policies against gender discrimnation. Although several women spectators were defying the state-approved hijabs, many of the women present at the stadium wore the dress code that the state has been imposing on women. Rights activists say that Iran is trying to bypass FIFA’s anti-discrimination laws by allowing a select group of women inside the stadiums but not abiding by the anti-discrimination standards of FIFA.
The Iranian national football team reached the 2022 Qatar World Cup on Thursday, December 27, with a 1-0 victory over Iraq. This was one of the few times, and certainly, the first time that authorities approved and even welcomed women to participate in a men’s sports competition as spectators after the Islamic Republic came to power following the 1979 revolution.
However, despite the state media claiming that 2000 tickets were sold to women, not all female spectators were allowed to enter the stadium freely. Women’s rights activists say that the women who were allowed in were present to help the Iranian authorities to escape the anti-discrimination policies of FIFA.
The stadium was segregated for the game based on gender. Women’s rights activists say that ticket sales were not open to women from the public. Those women who attempted to purchase tickets from the sales website were denied access . Women have published screenshots from the sales website, showing that multiple attempts to buy tickets for the women section in the stadium did not go through.
This controversial decision to allow women to enter sports stadiums, which has always faced opposition from Iran’s right-wing and religious clerics, was the result of pressure from FIFA. However, evidence and claims show that the presence of these women in government-approved attires and stadium sections far away from male spectators was a fake show for FIFA.
Shabnam Rahmati, a journalist and women’s rights activist writes on Twitter:
“Since last night, I have been commenting on Instagram on all the posts and stories of people and media containing pictures of women in the stadium that the ticketing system for women was not opened yesterday, and these are the women who went to the stadium selectively.”
Shabnam Mokhtari, another journalist who failed to buy a ticket, also posted a photo of the football ticket sales system and writes:
“Officials say 2,000 tickets were sold for #women_enter_to_Azadi Stadium. We say: In the very first seconds of the opening of the ticket sales system for the Iran-Iraq national team game when one chose the #women section, the remaining capacity was zero! It means that women in the stadium today are insiders or relatives!”
Heavy Disagreement of the Ayatollahs
On the day of this important match, a group of Iranian religious clerics wrote a letter to President Ebrahim Raisi calling for a ban on the entry of women to watch men’s soccer (+). They claimed that the presence of women is against Islamic values and in line with Western demands. The clerics write in their letter:
“This issue is not only among the problems of priority for women in society but is fundamentally contrary to the Islamic values. This is in line with the western view of the West towards women. Therefore, it is expected that while preventing the implementation of this decision, you will forbid the various sections of the government from any anti-religious action which is contrary to the economic, cultural, and social priorities of the country”.
Harsh Objection of Clerics to Women entering Stadiums
A few months before the match, FIFA had warned Iran that according to Iran’s international obligations and in accordance with the policies of the International Federation, women should be allowed to enter the stadium equally with men (+).
FIFA had previously stated in a letter to Iran that preventing women from entering the stadium could lead to the suspension of the Iranian soccer team from international games. Due to these warnings, Iran had to show, at least ostensibly, that women were present in the stadium. Although the Iranian authorities refuse to give a clear explanation, the shreds of evidence demonstrate that the presence of women in the football stadium might have been just a show for FIFA.
Elahe Mohammadi, a journalist and women’s rights activist, wrote on Twitter (+): “Women entering the Azadi Stadium for today’s game were selective and without selling tickets.” Other women, by sending pictures and audio messages to the media or publishing content in cyberspace, have emphasized that they have been barred from watching the match and have not been sold tickets.
Iranian journalist Fatemeh Kalantari published a photo of a female reporter behind the stadium doors and wrote that not even female photographers and reporters were not allowed into the stadium (+). She expressed that she had hoped that male photographers and reporters would refrain from entering the stadium in protest.
Another Twitter user informed FIFA in English by posting a picture of the ticket sales website and showing that sales did not go through for the women section (+):
“Dear FIFA, Today Iranian women couldn’t get a ticket for Iran-Iraq match, however, it is written that the women’s seats have been sold. Some selected women were able to enter Azadi Stadium. Please do not be fooled”.
Another user asked FIFA not to be fooled by the Iranian liar authorities. Like many others, she posted a picture of a ticket sales website as evidence that women’s access to sales was blocked (+).
Why does Iran Forbid Women from Watching Men’s Sports?
The Islamic Republic of Iran cannot separate sport from ideological and political issues. For instance, Iranian athletes are barred from confronting Israeli athletes and urged to avoid confrontation with Israelis by pretending to be ill or voluntarily excluding themselves from the match. Large stadiums always have bulky photographs of Iran’s religious leaders (Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader of the Islamic Republic). Religious and political slogans and images are always placed next to the stadiums. In this battle, women’s rights activists probably suffer more.
The right to enter the stadium is one of the battlegrounds that women’s rights activists have been long trying to achieve.
Iran, cannot tolerate female athletes entering world competitions without a government-mandated veiling. Pictures of female athletes are not broadcast on Iranian state-owned television, and even these athletes need the permission of their husbands or fathers to leave Iran and participate in world competitions.
The joy of women at the stadium or their co-presence with men to watch football is not accepted at all by the religious rulers of Iran. For four decades, Iranian women have been barred from attending football stadiums and watching their favorite team play. Various groups and campaigns have been working for years to eliminate this discrimination and of course, many of these campaigned have faced suppression.
Iranian Women Struggle for Equal Rights: the White Scarf Campaign
According to article four of the FIFA policies, any discrimination against people because of gender is “strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion”.
Iranian women have been long trying to enforce this policy. One of the significant events that focused on women’s rights to enter the football stadium is the “white-scarf campaign”. The campaign was founded in 2005 by some activists to reclaim the right for women who loved soccer and feel the desire to go to the stadium.
On June 9, 2005, women activists gathered in front of Tehran’s Azadi football Stadium organized under the “White Scarf Campaign” and tried to enter the stadium and watch the Iran-Bahrain match. Reportedly there were between 200 to 500 women who tried to enter the stadium and some of them achieved this. However, some women were also denied or detained in the process.
This campaign with the slogan “Women’s Right, Half Freedom” (the White Scarf Campaign) was one of the first determined efforts by women to enter the stadiums. An Iranian film director, Jafar Panahi, shot his award-winning film, Offside, during the same game. Panahi in that film demonstrated the issues that prevent women from entering the football stadium. His film, however, has never been allowed to be screened in Iran.
The Story of the Blue Girl
After the White Scarf Campaign, the Iranian government imposed more restrictions on the presence of women in the stadium. Some women continued the efforts including entering the stadium with a men’s clothing.
In March 2019 a 29-year-old girl named Sahar Khodayari, who is known on social media as the Blue Girl, was arrested by police officers when she entered Azadi Stadium to watch a football match between Esteghlal F.C Iran and Al Ain Emirates F.C in the Asian Champions League. She was arrested and informed by the court that if convicted, he could be sentenced to six months to two years in prison for entering the stadium illegally. After hearing this news, he set himself on fire in front of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran and died as result.
Twitter users reacted to the event significantly. In just 24 hours, the hashtag #BanIRSportsFederations was repeated more than 60,000 times by Iranians on Twitter and demanded that the sports federations of the Islamic Republic be banned from world competitions.
Iranians Await FIFA’s Response
The Islamic Republic is trying to show another picture of women’s lives n Iran with fake shows, such as what happened in the Iran-Iraq football match. The rational expectation of Iranian women is that the world should not leave them alone in their struggle for equal rights. One of the actions of the international community may be a serious request from the officials of the International Football Federation (FIFA) to react against the fake shows the Islamic Republic orchestrated in the Iran-Iraq match. FIFA’s silence on this issue is precisely what the Islamic Republic wants. Until now, FIFA has issued stern warnings to Iranian officials. It must now be seen whether FIFA remains loyal to its ideals or become silent and satisfied with the fake shows of the Islamic Republic.