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Iranian Stadiums a Hotbed for Increasing Defiance of Government Restrictions

Edward Carney 

On Monday, the Independent reported upon the latest in a long series of clashes between citizens and security forces over Iranian women’s rights and the regime’s insistence upon barring female fans from attendance at male sporting events. Tehran has variously come under fire from international sports authorities, including FIFA, for this policy, but with little practical consequence. The failure of those authorities to properly penalize the Islamic Republic appears to stem in large part from Iran’s ability to hint at progress toward inclusion before ultimately maintaining the established status quo.

In the past, this deception has taken the form of marking off a separate women’s section in certain stadiums but then allowing in only a foreign nationals or players’ wives. Last year, the authorities granted more general access to women from foreign nations who were visiting to support their own teams during a competition with an Iranian national team. Yet the prohibition on attendance by female citizens of the Islamic Republic remains in full force.

By opening up ticketing for foreign visitors of both sexes, stadiums have apparently created glitches that allowed Iranian buyers to do the same. Female fans and women’s rights activists seized upon the opportunity to demand entry during at least one event last year, and this situation reportedly recurred on June 6 at a men’s soccer match between teams representing Iran and Syria. Days earlier, the Iranian Football Federation’s website had allowed the purchase of tickets for both men and women, but the latter option was removed within 24 hours and women who had purchased tickets were turned away at the gate.

Syrian women were permitted to enter, however, and when their Iranian counterparts demanded the same treatment, they were violently attacked by security forces. At least two of the women were arrested, and it was not immediately clear whether they stood to be charged with a crime. According to eye-witnesses, even those women who were not protesting or actively attempting to gain entry to the stadium were targeted in the crackdown.

“They kicked us, punched us and swore at us, without our doing anything wrong,” said one woman who was present outside Thursday’s match. “There were several of us, women, who were waiting on the lawns outside the west gate of the stadium. We were not chanting. We were not talking. We were not even holding the Iranian flag.”

The apparent severity of the security forces response can likely be attributed to two factors: the ongoing growth of the women’s rights movement in Iran, and the rising levels of political activity at Iranian sporting events. IranWire highlighted the latter phenomenon last week, describing “anarchic events” that have been seen over the past two years, stemming from the fact that stadiums are virtually the only places in the Islamic Republic where people – albeit only men – can legally gather.

The report affirms that more and more women have taken to gathering outside stadiums to demand their right to enter, ever since the “what scarves” movement began in 2005. But it also calls attention to the chanting of political and anti-government slogans by the crowds inside stadiums. This phenomenon has apparently reached a number of milestones over the years, with authorities banning certain slogans and expanding enforcement measures, only for attendees to re-convene with even more provocative chants and more broadly coordinated demonstrations.

IranWire notes that this trend culminated in three weeks of protests, representing a “new phase” in the first half of the 2018-2019 soccer season. That period was preceded by a series of street protests that spanned the entire country in the last days of 2017 and the first few weeks of 2018. One of the most prominent and provocative slogans from that nationwide uprising was “death to the dictator,” which was widely interpreted as a call for regime change. This slogan re-emerged in a number of subsequent protests, including some of the most recent stadium gatherings.

As a result of this, security has reportedly been very tight at major stadiums in recent months, and this security has presumably been split between general crowd control and stepped-up enforcement of the ban on female attendance. Both of these goals have comparable implications for national security, in the minds of Iranian authorities. This was essentially the message shared by Tehran’s chief of police on Saturday when he confirmed the closure of hundreds of restaurants and cafes and declared that “one of the police’s major missions and responsibilities” is the enforcement of Islamic principles.

For the sake of that mission, the restaurants in question were closed down following reports of a number of allegedly criminal activities such as “unconventional advertising,” “playing illegal music,” and “debauchery.” But the broader enforcement of Islamic principles also includes separating men and women in stadiums and other public places, as well as harassing women who are deemed to be wearing overly loose head coverings.

It is primarily for the sake of that latter issue – the country’s forced veiling laws – that authorities in Gilan Province recently announced the deployment of 2,000 additional agents of the morality police. These agents are tasked with issuing “verbal and physical” warnings to women practicing “bad hijab” or “mal-veiling,” according to Iran Human Rights Monitor. They will also be accompanied by an additional 22,000 members of the Basij civilian militia, which is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and has been empowered in recent years to more aggressively confront fellow citizens over supposed violations of Islamic principles.

The commander for the Gilan branch of the IRGC reported that more than 28,000 women have already received warnings. But this fact, along with the underlying crackdown, is indicative of the rising levels of defiance that authorities have lately acknowledged. That same defiance, as it concerns women’s rights, is regularly on display outside stadiums, while virtually all-male crowds inside the same stadiums seem increasingly driven to challenge the very system that mandates Iran’s systemic gender discrimination.

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