Women's Rights Activists Exploit Ticketing "Glitch" to Protest Stadium Ban

On Monday, it was reported that a technical glitch on a ticketing website had apparently led to an unknown number of women being allowed to purchase tickets for a soccer match at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Iranian authorities quickly responded to the incident by saying that there were no plans to honor the tickets, which would be cancelled and have their purchase price refunded. And according to Newsweek, some women acknowledged that they were well aware of the fact that they would not be allowed into the stadium, but elected to purchase tickets anyway, as a symbolic gesture.

Iranian women are barred from attending men’s soccer matches and other major sporting events, with clerical authorities claiming that the policy is intended to protect women from the uncontrolled male behavior in that environment. The Newsweek article noted that specific rules can change without warning, as evidenced by the 2014 expansion of the ban to include professional volleyball games. But any sudden loosening of these restrictions would be very surprising, especially in light of the general crackdown on social pressures regarding women’s rights in recent years.

Following the expansion of the stadium ban, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued new guidelines for families, whereby he encouraged women to eschew the workplace in favor of starting large families at an early age. The guidelines coincided with policies aimed at reducing access to birth control and more vigorously enforcing gender segregation in Iranian society at large, not just in stadiums. Also in 2014, Iranian cities saw a wave of acid attacks on women, which critics linked to the regime’s plans for expanding the powers of civilian militias to harass women over violations of the country’s forced veiling laws.

Those acid attacks spurred widespread protests, which were arguably indicative of the pro-feminist social pressures that regime authorities appear to be reacting against. Additionally, various women have risked arrest by attempting to enter men’s stadiums or by successfully sneaking into them, and in 2014 the Iranian-British law graduate Ghoncheh Ghavami made international headlines was arrested and held in solitary detention for more than 100 days as a result of her symbolic attempt to attend a volleyball game. Under domestic and foreign pressure, the Iranian judiciary eventually released her on bail, but she has reportedly been barred from returning to the UK.

The social activism underlying this and other women’s rights protests was on display once again in the wake of the ticketing glitch. One woman reported how she and a number of other women traveled to Azadi Stadium either with the hope of getting into the Iran-Syria match or in order to make a public statement about the ban. Her account explained that the women were repeatedly threatened by security forces and were video-recorded throughout the encounter. This latter fact raises concern about the possibility of the same women being targeted for harassment at a later date, since various other reports indicate that once a person has come under investigation by Iranian authorities, they are often subject to intense scrutiny for years to come, even if they leave the country.

Even among women who did not attempt to have their tickets honored, some called public attention to the incident via other means. The Newsweek report emphasizes that on the same day as the ticketing glitch was discovered, social media in the Islamic Republic was filled with posts using a hashtag that translates as, “I have ticket.” This evidently led to more women visiting the site and purchasing tickets, with at least one saying that she was more moved to do so by the political significance of the act than by any personal love of soccer. Despite the rapid spread of this trend via social media, the ticketing website claimed that only seven women had been mistakenly sold tickets – a claim that was quickly disproved by the number of women who showed up carrying cancelled tickets.

The impact of the incident on social media served to highlight the widespread public defiance on that point, as well. Online platforms including Facebooks and Twitter are banned in Iran but are nonetheless in common use as a result of technical workarounds like virtual proxy networks. The ban on Twitter was imposed in response to its effective use as an organizing tool at the time of the Green Movement protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. It has remained a popular platform for dissent since then, but has also led to arrest and prosecution of persons whose posts were monitored by security officials. More recently, the Telegram messaging app has become an even more popular activist tool, due in part to its supposedly higher level of security.

Twitter remains so popular, however, that the “I have ticket” hashtag was not even the only trending item on Monday that was related to women’s rights. Another report indicated that some Iranian Twitter users had introduced the hashtag #reverse_cliché in order to highlight the absurdity of assumptions and double standards applied to women by Iranian government and society. Participants in the discussion substituted men for women in satirical statements about such topics as divorce, travel, attire, disparate legal treatment, and of course, behavior at sporting events.

Under Iran’s Islamic laws, it is extremely easy for a man but extremely difficult for a woman to divorce their spouse; women require the permission of their husbands or fathers in order to travel; and women are unable to become judges or even to give testimony that carries that same weight as a man’s in a court of law. Furthermore, women are generally discouraged from holding other positions of influence, and although the numbers of female legislators have grown following recent elections, they remain a small minority.

There was some hope that women’s role in government would expand under the leadership of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who campaigned as a reformist in advance of his first-term election in 2013 and even more so in advance of his second term election in May of this year. Although most of the above-mentioned initiatives opposing women’s rights went into effect after Rouhani had taken office, his campaign suggested that a stronger mandate would lead to the realization of previously sidelined reforms, including the release of political prisoners and the reduction of social repression.

The president’s choice of cabinet ministers was an early test of his commitment to these promises around the time of his second term inauguration last month. Many supporters had intently urged him to appoint women to some of the 18 positions. His refusal to do so was a source of disappointment for many supporters, and it was compounded by the apparent fact that Rouhani instructed one of his two female appointees to vice presidential posts to accommodate hardliners by dressing in the conservative chador.

Both of these disappointments were highlighted by Al Monitor on Tuesday in an article that highlighted the ongoing public defiance of anti-feminist attitudes, which has been conveyed through social media as well as through editorials in independent, reform-minded media outlets. The article quotes some activists as saying that even though they supported Rouhani through his second term election, they now acknowledge that their hopes were misplaced, even though some such hopes had only been for symbolic gestures.

As Al Monitor points out, the processes in the Islamic Republic are tightly controlled for government appointments and legislation. As such, it is doubtful that most female cabinet appointees would even pass the confirmation process, which includes vetting by unelected officials whose role is to make sure that all major decisions are in line with the supreme leader’s view of Islamic law and society. Nevertheless, the Al Monitor article suggests that some people had hoped President Rouhani would push back in some measure against anti-feminist initiatives.

Social media and public protests indicate that there is such pushback, but that it is coming from private voices and not from the supposedly reformist faction of Iranian government.