By Andrew Hanna
Iran marked a historic milestone in October 2019, as thousands of women attended a soccer match for the first time in nearly four decades. The match drew some 4,000 women to Azadi stadium in Tehran for a World Cup qualifier match against Cambodia.
Between 1981 and 2019, Iranian women were banned from attending soccer matches, even though there was no legal prohibition. Iran was forced to allow women to attend under pressure from FIFA, the world governing body for soccer. The group’s own by-laws restrict gender-based discrimination in sports matches.
Iranian women rushed to buy tickets online as soon as they were available. The country’s Sports Ministry was forced to allocate additional seats for women after the first tickets sold out in minutes.
Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s Vice President on Women and Family Affairs, tweeted a video of women celebrating and waving Iranian flags hours before the match began.
Women football fans are present in the Azadi Stadium for the Preliminary World Cup game in Tehran. https://t.co/sKwaT6NelN— Massoumeh Ebtekar (@ebtekarm) October 10, 2019
In a statement, FIFA President Gianni Infantino praised the “passion, joy and enthusiasm” shown by Iranian women. “History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey.”
In the past, hardliners insisted on the informal ban, which was upheld by religious police. But enthusiastic female fans sometimes snuck into stadiums disguised as men. Those caught faced jailtime and public humiliation.
In September 2019, a female football fan committed suicide after she was arrested for attending a match. Sahar Khodayari, 29, set herself on fire after she learned that she faced a prison term of six months to two years. Sports fans and human rights groups spread news of the woman’s death with the hashtag #bluegirl – a reference to the colors of her favorite sports team.
The suicide sparked outrage at the government among Iranians, but also fury globally at FIFA.
Under pressure, FIFA President Gianni Infantino urged Iran to allow women to attend all future matches. FIFA sent inspectors to Tehran ahead of the October World Cup qualifier match to ensure Iran complied.
“FIFA closed its eyes for many years,” said Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “It took one person to lose her life for FIFA to understand that enough was enough.”
In an oped in The New York Times, Maryam Shojaei, an activist and the sister of a former captain of Iran’s national soccer team, wrote, “Our fight to go to stadiums was always about human rights, about women’s rights and about the right to occupy public spaces and fully participate in the life of our country. We never accepted being shut out.”
Shojaei’s brother Masoud played in three FIFA World Cups, but the three females in the family had never seen him play a game in Iran. “My mother has never had a chance for her heart to swell with pride as her son scored a goal, nor could I ever have cheered him on while I was living in Iran,” she wrote.
Women who attended the match chanted “Blue Girl” in honor of Khodayari.
Women in Iran’s Azadi Stadium chanting “Blue Girl” to honor Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire outside a courthouse where she was being prosecuted for trying to enter the stadium. #BlueGirl https://t.co/g4xLMr3tS3 pic.twitter.com/iZ59E5l9gS— IranHumanRights.org (@ICHRI) October 10, 2019
Not all women were granted entry, however. The number of seats reserved for women was capped at about 4,000, even though the stadium’s capacity is 75,000. Women who were denied tickets protested outside the stadium.
FIFA has limited ability to pressure Iran over games that are not international. And Iran did not indicate whether it would allow women to attend domestic league matches
Human rights advocates said the decision to allow female fans into the FIFA match was an important step forward for Iranian women. “I think FIFA made it clear for Iran it applies to all matches,” Memarian said. “That means if Iran refuses to let women to go to the stadium, they will face consequences.”
Azadi, the name of the stadium, means “freedom” in Farsi, Shojaei wrote. “And when all women are allowed to freely attend matches, the stadium will finally be worthy of its name.”
Iran won the match, 14-0.