By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, a semiofficial Iranian media outlet published remarks from the nation’s prosecutor general which seemed to underscore the theocratic regime’s commitment to defying foreign demands and international standards of behavior. At a time when the Islamic Republic is facing escalating pressure in the form of US sanctions and an emerging security coalition tasked with confronting Iranian threats in the Persian Gulf, it is also continuing to confront broader pressure from human rights advocates, non-governmental organizations, and the international community as a whole.
In his remarks to the ISNA news agency, Mohammad Montazeri took aim at the international soccer authority, FIFA, in order to insist that this and other foreign organizations have no right to comment upon Iranian affairs. His statement evidently constituted a response, albeit a delayed one, to a vague ultimatum that had been imposed upon Iran by FIFA President Gianni Infantino in June. In a letter addressed to the head of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Infantino set a July 15 deadline for the Iranians to outline “concrete steps” that would lead to the free admittance of female soccer fans to Iranian stadiums in time for the country’s first qualifying match for the 2022 World Cup.
The given deadline passed without any further news as to what these concrete steps might be. Yet Infantino publicly expressed satisfaction with the Iranian soccer authority’s commitment to ending the practice of banning women from stadiums. At the same time, the FIFA president acknowledged that approval from the Iranian government would still be needed for the FFIRI to implement any serious measures leading to that outcome. Now, Montazeri’s own response seems to indicate that no such approval is forthcoming. Additionally, his rejection of FIFA’s concern is a reminder of the undue optimism that has followed other efforts at compelling Iranian sports authorities to reform.
“That is certainly not the concern of FIFA -- whether women are among the football fans in the stadiums or not,” Montazeri said. But the international body’s longstanding rules establish that spectators within member nations may not be excluded from events on the basis of any factors of identity. Furthermore, FIFA statutes allow for member states’ soccer governing bodies to be suspended as punishment for violations. This would effectively ban Iran from hosting or participating in World Cup qualifying matches or any other FIFA events.
No doubt this was the implicit threat in Infantino’s June message to the FFIRI. However, no such threat was formally expressed in the letter or in Infantino’s optimistic follow-up to the Iranian body’s non-committal response. FIFA has come under fire at various times in the past from and from Iranian women’s rights and human rights activists, over its failure to follow through on its demands with specific action.
In March of last year, 35 women were arrested outside Tehran’s Azadi stadium because they had demanded entry to a match that was also being attended by Infantino himself. And although the incident prompted renewed calls to action by FIFA, Iranian authorities only agreed to allow players’ wives and female visitors from other countries to view a subsequent match from a special women-only section. This November final of the Asian Champions League was also attended by Infantino, and the modest display of progress prompted still further optimistic statements from the FIFA head.
But since then, the Islamic Republic has made no move to extend stadium access to ordinary Iranian women. Women-only sections have been cordoned off in some cases for the foreign fans of opposing teams, but authorities continue to vigorously enforce the ban for the domestic female population, sometimes relying on violence to do so in the midst of an outpouring of women’s rights activism.
Prior to a June match between Iran and Syria, a glitch in the online ticketing system briefly allowed Iranian women as well as Syrian women to purchase tickets, but only the latter group’s tickets were ultimately honored.
Female sports fans and women’s rights activists both took advantage of the glitch to purchase tickets and attempt to gain access to the match, but authorities responded by arresting at least two women and attacking several others. Eye-witness reports of that incident indicate that security forces did not limit their violence to women who were actively seeking entrance to the stadium, but also beat and shoved women who had merely assembled nearby.
These sorts of actions may reflect Iranian authorities’ anxiety about growing foreign awareness of the stadium ban, even though entities like FIFA have seemingly been weak in their efforts to compel change from the regime and the domestic soccer authority. But a presumably greater source of anxiety is the growing activism among Iranian women, as it relates not only to the stadium ban but also to forced veiling laws and other prevalent women’s rights issues.
Indeed, there have been widespread reports in recent months of more aggressive crackdowns on women who are supposedly flouting the Islamic dress code. This repression has been made possible by the deployment of larger numbers of morality police units and hardline civilian militias that are tasked with confronting and harassing women for alleged instances of “bad hijab.” Numerous videos and personal accounts have gone viral on social media in Iran, depicting these forces carrying out their missions, sometimes by physically attacking women, forcing them into vans, and demanding that they sign pledges affirming their intention to fully comply with forced veiling in the future.
Bloomberg News recently pointed to the prosecution of both Iranian women’s rights activists and those who have sought to defend them in court or in the media. It was reported last week that three women had been sentenced to a combined 55 years in prison after being initially charged with “disrespecting compulsory hijab” and ultimately charged with “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the regime,” and “encouraging immorality and prostitution.”
The Bloomberg report noted that Tehran had apparently sought to address public sentiment over one of the many legal issues relating to women’s rights, namely the legal provisions of qisas, or “retribution in kind” which designate female victims as being worth have as much as male victims. The Iranian Supreme Court has technically altered his rule, allowing women or their families to be paid as much as men in similar cases of death or bodily injury. However, rather than actually changing the law, the ruling merely sets up a government fund to match the amount paid to female victims by the perpetrators of violent crime.
Bloomberg allows that especially optimistic observers of Iran’s domestic situation may “glean some reassurance” from this ruling. But in light of the regime’s obstinacy in the face of both foreign and domestic pressure on issues like forced veiling and stadium access, the slight alteration of an otherwise controversial “blood money” provision is likely to be regarded as an empty gesture by most advocates for the expansion of women’s rights.
On the other hand, empty gestures and temporary measures have fooled some such advocates in the past. It remains to be seen whether FIFA will take more serious action in the wake of Tehran’s latest rejection of its call for open stadium access. And Infantino’s record of optimism raises questions about whether small reforms in other areas of Iranian law and policy will give the impression that greater reforms are forthcoming, even as Tehran remains plainly committed to crackdowns on women’s rights and on domestic activism in general.