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On Gender Discrimination, Iran Faces Little Pressure Abroad, but Much at Home

By Edward Carney

On Thursday, soccer’s international governing body professed to have seen recent progress toward Iran ending its ban on female attendance at male sporting events. However, reports on this topic gave no indication of concrete steps undertaken by Iran’s domestic sports authorities, much less by the country’s theocratic government.

FIFA’s optimistic statement reportedly stems from communication with Iran’s soccer federation, in which the latter voiced support for allowing women to attend soccer matches beginning with the qualifying competitions for the 2022 World Cup. FIFA is supposedly working with the national federation on this matter, but it is unclear what that collaboration entails, considering that an actual change of rules would be contingent upon government approval.

There is no indication that such approval is forthcoming, and in fact Iranian security forces seem to have stepped up their enforcement of this and other forms of gender segregation throughout the Islamic Republic. Last month, several women were attacked by those authorities outside of a Tehran stadium after some attempted to convince staff to honor tickets that were sold to them in error.

Due to a glitch in the online ticketing system, separate seats were briefly made available for both women and men at a match between Iranian and Syrian teams. This was apparently the result of a compromise rule that Iran has variously adopted in the midst of the controversy over its ban on female attendance. In the case of this and some other matches, women from visiting countries are permitted to watch from special female-only sections of the stadium. But with the rare exception of players’ wives, this system has never been expanded to include Iranian women.

Still, the partial rule change previously served to convince FIFA that Iran was moving in the direction of inclusiveness, and thus toward compliance with FIFA’s own rules regarding non-discrimination in stadium access for persons in all countries that participate in FIFA events. This in turn has been a source of frustration for women’s rights activists who see the international body as being far too willing to take Iranian officials at their word when they claim to be taking foreign criticisms seriously.

In the wake of a number of dubious promises from the Iranians, FIFA has indicated that it wants to see the issue of gender discrimination resolved by October 10 – the scheduled date for Iran’s first World Cup qualifier. But President Gianni Infantino gave no indication of what steps the international sports authority will actually take if the issue still remains unresolved after that date.

This speaks to a general lack of follow through that has been recurring against the backdrop of vigorous appeals by advocates for expanded women’s rights in the Islamic Republic. The stadium ban is certainly not the most serious instance of Tehran impinging on those rights, but its significance is amplified by the fact that it often the issue that represents Iran’s women’s rights movement to the rest of the international community.

At times, support for the “Open Stadiums” movement may draw attention to other, related issues. For instance, the violence that was witnessed outside the Iran-Syria match in June is a reflection of rising levels of violence and intimidation in the enforcement of the Islamic dress code and other gender-specific laws. In recent weeks, it has been reported that authorities deployed additional morality police forces to confront violations of those laws, as well as entrusting this role to civilian militias who may legally harass women over supposed instances of “mal-veiling” before calling for their arrest.

In Gilan Province alone, more than 28,000 women have reportedly been confronted in this way just since the beginning of the year, and well over 2,000 have been compelled to sign written statements indicating that they will adhere more closely to the Islamic dress code in the future. Nevertheless, instances of deliberate violation appear to be growing, in a testament to the strength of the women’s rights movement.

On Monday, a report by the Associated Press profiled some of the women who are defying Iran’s forced veiling laws, either as an act of quiet civil disobedience or for the sake of open political protest. The report notes that at least three dozen women have been detained by Iranian security forces since the beginning of 2018, for their participation in demonstrations identified as “Girls of Revolution Street,” which involved women removing their veils and holding them over their heads while standing on elevated structures. Nine of these arrestees are currently in detention and may face multi-year sentences for their peaceful activities.

Regime authorities appear committed to expanding upon these numbers, as evidenced by recent public statements by the nation’s judiciary, urging ordinary citizens to inform on women who appear to be violating the accepted standards of modest dress. At the same time, institutions like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are working to exert parallel social pressure on Iranian women, to further narrow the cultural understanding of what is and is not acceptable.

Toward that end, the Islamic Republic recently marked “hijab week,” which state media used as an opportunity to disseminate media that was deemed insulting by some. As one example, an animated film appeared on social media in the name of the Basij Cyberspace Organization, in which a male jewelry store owner compares women to the commodities he sells by noting that true valuables are locked away while only the cheap and disposable items remain uncovered.

The video reportedly generated substantial backlash on Iranian social media, despite the fact that the IRGC has been known to personally monitor communications on largely banned social networks and use that data as grounds for ordering arrests. Such dangers are arguably outweighed by the role that platforms like Twitter and Telegram have played in activist organizing and in spreading news about relevant issues. As well as fostering critical discussion of Iranian propaganda, these networks have disseminated numerous videos in recent months depicting violent attacks by morality police and civilian militias on women deemed to be improperly veiled.

The resulting awareness may be adding to the challenge for Iranian security forces. And indeed, their efforts to expand “morality patrols” in various localities may be a direct response to the pressure they are facing from civilians who are willing to flout discriminatory laws or at least defend those who do so. The AP report that detailed this trend on Monday indicated that one journalist had spotted at least two dozen women walking in public without a head covering over the course of just nine days.

That same report suggests that this sort of bold defiance of the law is stretching Iranian security forces beyond their ability to bolster enforcement. Meanwhile, that effect is being exacerbated by the punishing economic sanctions that have been imposed on the regime by the United States. “e hijab debate has further polarized Iranians at a time when the country is buckling under unprecedented U.S. sanctions,” the report states. “It's unclear to what extent the government can enforce hijab compliance amid an economic malaise.”

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