Since very soon after the 1979 Islamic revolution, women have been barred from attending men’s sporting events. Since that time, Iran’s national soccer authority has variously come under pressure from FIFA and from women’s rights activists both inside the country and throughout the world. But as Saturday’s statement pointed out, this has had little effect so far, excepting a few instances in which limited numbers of women’s tickets were sold, allowing access to a special female-only section at international matches. Even then, female attendance was generally limited to visitors from foreign countries and the wives of Iranian players.
Nonetheless, Iranian authorities have sought to portray this very limited compromise as fulfilling FIFA’s demands. More specifically, though authorities have variously insisted that negotiations with FIFA had yielded an understanding that women would still be barred from attendance at matches between Iranian soccer clubs.
Yet the latest statement from the international body made it clear that this was not the case. Although it reiterated FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s earlier demand that female attendance be guaranteed by the time of the Iranian national team’s first home qualifier for the 2022 World Cup, it also stated in no uncertain terms that women must be granted unimpeded access to all matches after that point. The statement further added that ticketing for women should not be subjected to quotas. In the past, seating in female-only sections was limited to roughly five percent of the total stadium capacity.
This has not changed with the latest statement, although the comparable strength of that statement could inspire optimism about the prospect for more serious action if the deadline for female access passes unheeded.
But Iran was already expected to make preparations for overturning the ban, and it is not clear whether they responded to a prior ultimatum from FIFA. In June, Infantino issued a statement giving the Iranians less than a month to show definite progress toward guaranteeing equal access for women and men. No apparent changes were made in the wake of that statement, and in fact, reports emerged around that time which suggested the clerical regime was actually stepping up its enforcement.
The persistence and severity of that enforcement was made newly apparent earlier this month, when a female soccer fan named Sahar Khodayari died after setting herself on fire outside an Iranian courthouse. The 29-year-old woman, whose history of bipolar disorder was reportedly ignored by arresting authorities and prosecutors, staged her fatal protest after learning that she could serve between six months and two years in prison for the crime of entering a soccer stadium in male disguise.
Khodayari, who was dubbed the “Blue Girl” because of the color of her favorite team and the dress she was wearing at the courthouse, inspired an outpouring of support on social media from Iranian women’s rights activists and from a worldwide community of government and sports figures. And that in turn has been credited with pushing FIFA to make a more assertive statement.
In June, for instance, it was reported that two women were arrested and several were injured after a glitch in the online ticketing system for Azadi Stadium allowed a handful of Iranians to purchase women’s tickets for a match between the Iranian and Syrian national teams. As with previous matches that took place amidst international pressure over the ban, authorities had actually intended only for visiting Syrian spectators to have access to the women’s section.
In retaliation for asking that their tickets be honored, two women were arrested outside that match and several others were injured when security forces forced them to disperse.
For the time being, FIFA is espousing optimism about the prospects for a positive outcome. The issue was reportedly discussed at a prearranged meeting on Thursday between FIFA officials and officials from the Iran’s national federation. The subsequent statement reported that no significant operational obstacles could be seen for the lifting of the ban. However, this message was seemingly undermined in advance by President Hassan Rouhani and others, who pointed to an “inconvenient atmosphere” for countering the rules put into place by the architects of the Islamic revolution.
Of course, various individuals and organizations have been contributing to that pressure in the midst of the conflict between the Iranian regime and the country’s women’s rights activists. Just last week, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the human rights record in the Islamic Republic and specifically calling on the regime to end the “suppression of women.”