FIFA maintains a blanket ban on political slogans among the crowds at its games. But one witness to the fans’ ejection described himself as being “incensed” by the “insane irony” of the situation, insofar as the organization was effectively opposing a campaign for expanded and non-discriminatory access to its own events. FIFA later conceded that the fans and their t-shirts should have been allowed to remain. Its statement to this effect went on to say that the rules “need to be applied with a sense of proportion” and that in any case, the given slogans were not against the rules because they referred to a “social, not political, matter.”
The witness, Petr Kuzmin, expressed relief that FIFA issued this statement, “even if it took three days,” and he added that “it’s a good sign that they are interested in promoting women’s access to stadiums in Iran.” But for other supporters of the Open Stadiums movement, the incident may just re-raise questions concerning the true extent of that interest. FIFA has been criticized in the past for failing to impose serious consequences on the Islamic Republic, as by barring it from hosting international events, in response to its maintenance of the ban.
FIFA has exerted some verbal pressure on Iran’s national sporting authorities over the years, but this has still not resulted in meaningful change. And the long-term back-and-forth over the ban stands in contrast to the decision by security guards to very strictly enforce the rules last Saturday by kicking spectators out of the French stadium without warning or discussion.
The more conciliatory approach taken by leading FIFA officials has given Iran opportunities to stall for time. And it has done so effectively, sometimes by giving the impression that stadiums are moving toward compromise on the ban, only to reverse course after the fact. This fleeting signs of compromise have included the admission of select groups of women, namely players’ wives and foreign dignitaries, to designated, female-only sections of Iranian stadiums.
But even when authorities have followed through with such superficial gestures, bans on the general female population have remained unchanged. In fact, there are some signs that those bans are only being enforced more vigorously over time, even in the wake of international pressure from the likes of FIFA and various women’s rights groups.
Last week, it was reported in the Independent that a glitch in the online ticketing system for the Iranian soccer federation had allowed the sale of tickets for both male and female seats at a match between the Iranian and Syrian national teams. Female soccer fans and women’s rights activists seized upon the opportunity to acquire tickets before the glitch was fixed, and then showed up at the stadium to demand entry.
Although visiting Syrian women were allowed into the female-only section in accordance with the regime’s superficial compromise with foreign pressure, Iranian women were aggressively turned away and then indiscriminately attacked by Iranian security forces. The National Council of Resistance of Iran determined that at least two women were arrested, but it was unable to determine where they had then been taken or whether they were facing charges. Other women were slightly injured after being punched and dragged across the ground by security forces in an apparent effort to disperse the female crowd and disrupt any sort of women’s rights demonstration before it could even develop.