TEHRAN – Women have only ever got into Iran’s soccer stadiums to see male teams play as guests, on rare occasions or in secret owing to strict restrictions enforced by the authorities. Things have started to change now thanks to the pressure applied by FIFA.
Women have, for the first time, been able to purchase tickets for Thursday’s World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium, albeit in limited numbers. But it was not always like this.
The only matches at the stadium that women have been allowed into were an Asian Champions League one between Iran’s Persepolis and Japan’s Kashima Antlers in November last year, and a friendly between Iran and Bolivia in October 2018.
The majority of spectators were relatives of the players, employees of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran and some diplomats. Though they were “selected” or guests, a female presence at the Azadi marked a before and after.
In the stands, women spectators were separated from the men: “We played the vuvuzela, we shouted, jumped around… We didn’t feel uncomfortable at any time,” a South American diplomat who attended the Iran-Bolivia match told Efe.
This woman, who chose to mix with the female Iran fans and not stay in the box reserved for diplomats, said the presence of women was “a pretty big shock for the men.”
“They looked at us but I think their reaction was one of support. It was a special experience and I felt happy to be part of this first time and see these girls’ happy faces, it was like they couldn’t believe what was happening,” she said.
It was a milestone because since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 led by Ayatollah Khomeini women have not had the right to go into Iranian stadiums to watch men play.
Iranian authorities allege that the atmosphere inside the stadium is not suitable for women because fans, at times, behave violently and use bad language.
Sahar Nazeri soaked up the atmosphere for the first time when she was 15, disguised as a boy, along with her dad and brother to watch Persepolis play at the Azadi.
“I wasn’t very developed at that time and dressed a bit boyish, so I shoved my ponytail under a hat and didn’t look like a woman,” Nazeri told Efe.
Despite being sure nobody would realize she was a girl, she acknowledged she was “a little nervous knowing she was doing something that was forbidden.”
She was also worried about being pushed by the fans, insults and the possibility that there would be fights. “
The atmosphere wasn’t very good,” she said.
Although for her the experience was “really fun,” she believes the atmosphere has to be prepared “little by little” to avoid issues like abuse and so that women feel safe watching matches.
Other women who have got into stadiums disguised under hats and wearing false beards have been arrested by police, which has drawn criticism from human rights organizations and FIFA.
Pressure mounted following the recent death of a young female fan of Tehran-based Esteghlal FC, who set herself ablaze after finding out she could get jailed for six months for trying to get into the stadium disguised as a man.
On Thursday, some 4,000 women will be allowed into the Azadi without any issues, a number only previously seen in June 2018 when a match between Iran and Spain was broadcast live on a screen.
That event was almost canceled over rights issues, but an hour before kickoff doors opened to men and women, who wore Iranian flags and national colors painted on their faces.
Shirin Rezai, an administrative worker who was at the Azadi with her family, told Efe that everyone’s civil behavior gave the women spectators “confidence” and showed that their entry to the grounds could have “a positive effect.”