Iran vs Cambodia: 3,500 women in the stadium to fight a moral ban

14–0 is the final score of the match between Iran and Cambodia in the frame of the qualifiers at the 2022 World Cup. An anecdotal result while the news was riveted on the 3,500 women, who for the first time have been able to go to the stadium by buying their tickets themselves.

40 years of prohibition

Since 1979, following the Islamic Revolution, women have been banned from attending any male sporting events even though it is not written in the law. Football, basketball or even volleyball, the rule is the same for all sports. And do not imagine that it can be waived for a mother or sister of a player.

Maryam Shojaei, sister of national team captain Masoud Shojaei, an activist and member of the OpenStadiums movement, has never been able to attend a game of his brother in his native country. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, just before the game between Iran and Spain, she was blocked by security guards for two hours for wanting to get into the stadium a banner that said: “Let Iranian women enter their stadium”. On Thursday, she was not one of the 3500 women who attended the match considering her coming too dangerous after several campaigns against the government and the Iranian Football Federation to legitimize the presence of women in the stadiums.

By November 2018, around 100 handpicked women had been allowed to attend the friendly match between Iran and Bolivia, an initiative that Gianni Infantino had declared “disappointing”. That same month, Maryam Shojaei met with FIFA Secretary General, Fatma Samoura, to hand over a petition with 240,000 signatures.

Since March 2018, she has sent eight letters to FIFA to pressure and ask to threaten the Iranian federation of sanctions if they continue to not allow women in the stadiums. It was also on that date that 35 women were arrested for attempting to attend the match between Persepolis and Esteqlal, match attended by the FIFA President. It must be noted that despite this ban, Iranian women are not discouraged to try to attend matches. Their passion is stronger than a moral law so they disguise themselves with wigs and false beards to access the stadium. This had been a victorious tip in this match before being stopped. One of these women later told a moderate media reporter that this was her third time using this technique, changing her makeup and wig at each game. Asked if she was afraid of being detained, she replied, “Why should I be afraid? We do not commit any crime by going to stadiums. The law did not define the presence of women in stadiums as a crime. Of course, they detained some women who had to promise in writing not to return.”.

An act that is not a crime but last month, it cost the life of Sahar Khodayari, nicknamed “Blue Girl”. The 29-year-old girl immolated herself and succumbed to her injuries after learning that she was risking up to six months in prison following her arrest last March while trying to attend a game of her favourite team, Esteghlal. Her death was a big stir and human rights bodies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch seized the case to pressure FIFA but also put pressure on Iran by mobilizing the international community.

It must be said that this ban more broadly reflects the place and role of women in Iranian society than just a simple stadium ban. Not included in the Constitution, it’s the religious who put the pressure to maintain this prohibition by indicating that the dress of a player is too “erotic” and that the insults and potential inappropriate behaviours of men in the stadium are dangerous for the women. “When a woman goes to the stadium and sees half-naked men dressed in sportswear, the sin is committed”, this is how Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, the Iranian Attorney-General, justifies the ban on women going to a stadium. In 2018, following the friendly match between Iran and Bolivia and the few numbers of women who had been allowed to attend the match, he warned of the recidivism of such an action saying: “We will take care of anyone responsible to authorize at any price the presence of women in the stadiums”. On Monday, some fifty religious demonstrated in front of the Iranian parliament, chanting slogans against the lifting of the ban. However the Iranian President, Hassan Rohani, does not seem closed to a lifting of the ban, as mentioned by Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s Vice-President for Family and Women’s Affairs: “I think we are going forward, (…) that the government has made serious efforts in this direction and we now hope to see a match in which women will be sitting in the stadium.”.

The fight for equal rights continues

3,500 women in a stadium in Iran, a historic event and yet not egalitarian. Of the 78,000 seats at the Azadi Stadium, they accounted for less than 5% of the capacity and had been limited while only 2,500 tickets had found takers to the male audience the day before the match. It also took a few minutes for the 850 first places to be sold out, pushing the authorities to add more tickets. The women’s park has been full one hour before the match while outside, women had come to the stadium, hoping to buy their ticket on the spot. An act always discriminating for Maryam Shojaei who denounced that “if they propose different quotas of tickets, different gates to go in to and different sections to sit in, they are treating women differently from men.”. A situation that is, in fact, contrary to FIFA’s statutes mentioning that “any discrimination of a country, an individual or a group of people for reasons of skin colour, (…) sex, (…) or for any other reason is expressly prohibited, under penalty of suspension or exclusion”.

Of course, yes, a match is good but the real question is: what will happen next? Did the Iranian federation only make an exception because of the political pressure of FIFA following the media coverage of the death of Sahar Khodayari last month? Is this only a publicity stunt for the government while for the moment no ad perpetuating things has been announced for opening stands for all football matches, international but also the championships, in all stages without discriminatory restrictions? When will it be possible to have mixed stands so that women can come to the stadium with their children? Will Iran works on the accessibility of stadiums, including toilets, and be really committed to welcoming women in good conditions as announced by Hossein-Ali Amir last month? Or will they continue to use this as an excuse to stay in the current climate? Many questions that remain unanswered while human rights defenders are already sceptical because YES, ultimately it’s not just about football.

Allowing women to enter the stadiums is the first door to ask for more freedom and that, the Iranian thinking heads disagree. Saying “yes” to a woman is unthinkable and the authorities preferred that foreign countries and FIFA to do not interfere. The Iranian society is a society that excludes women from public spaces, who stop them if their veil is badly put or if they are dressed in a “provocative” way, whose especially religious powers refuse the change and intellectualization of women.

It is also the flagrant example of the power of football. If FIFA really threatened convincingly to enforce its statutes and thus suspend or exclude the Iranian federation, would that be enough to make political power react or the religion is stronger than anything? Is football the body that can dominate social and societal laws by playing a fundamental role in the place of women?

While waiting to know the answers, the players of the Iranian national team went to honour the 3,500 women present to encourage them in this match of the preliminaries to the 2022 World Cup applauding them at the end of the match to show their support and solidarity to lift their stadium ban.

Some thoughts about the sport, media and entertainment industry. Building a sport events app. I also have a french newsletter : https://romanse.substack.com/

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