Women from the religiously conservative nation are trekking to Russia to cheer on their home team from inside of a stadium for the first time ever.
When Iran and Morocco met for the first time in the 2018 Russian World Cup on the 15 June, it was a first for female football fans. Not only was Aly Wagner the first female pundit commenting on the match for Fox U.S., but inside the stadium, dozens of women from Iran were in the stadium to witness their first ever football match.
Speaking to the Guardian under an assumed name, one of the fans told journalist Shaun Walker what it was like seeing her first game in person: “I’ve watched lots on television but this was so different; I felt like I had stepped into the television set and everything had become 3D. I didn’t really know how to cheer, because I’ve never been inside a stadium.” In their home country, Iranian women are effectively banned from matches. This past March, 35 women were arrested attempting to enter a match in Tehran.
Iranian women the world over are using the World Cup as a way of bringing attention to inequality throughout their homeland. Last Friday, a collective of notable Iranian women, including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, sent an open letter to FIFA, demanding they call on the Islamic Republic of Iran end of the ban on female attendance. At the games, protest did not go unnoticed by the Russian authorities. As Iranian football supporter Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei tried to enter the Kazan stadium for her team’s match with Spain last week, officials stopped her from coming in for over two hours after she caught international attention by waving a flag saying “Support Iranian women to attend stadiums #NoBan4Women” at the Morocco game a week previously.
Back in Iran, the tide does seem to be turning for women whose only crime is wanting to be a spectator on the side, cheering their team on, as last week the country’s strict morality police relaxed their restrictive culture by allowing women into the Azadi stadium in Iranian capital of Tehran to watch the televised game with Spain, making it the first time since 1981 that women have been allowed to do so.
As news travelled that women would be allowed in the stadium, female fans arrived outside only to be told there were “infrastructure problems and would not be let in. It was only thanks to a special order by the Interior Ministry, that women entered the stadium an hour before kickoff.
But the change hasn’t gone down so well with some.
With videos from the Spain match broadcast all over the internet, the country’s hardline Prosecutor-General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, denounced the women as “disgraceful.” Speaking to Radio Europe, Montazeri said: “Unfortunately, some individuals have penetrated the key institutions of the country and are about to betray the revolution and the blood of our martyrs,” and “they were wrong if they believed that they could implement their ‘satanic’ policies.”
Activists with Open Stadiums, a self-described “movement of Iranian Women seeking to end discrimination” are also unsure of what they suddenly relaxed laws mean for any actual long-term change. When asked if they thought it was a sign in the tide turning for female sports fans in Iran, they responded, “Who knows, we always fight for it,” later suggesting that the group’s new approach may just be “testing hardliners reactions.”
Iran doesn’t like to be seen kowtowing to dissent, making advances for women’s rights in the country appear as a product of the government’s good will. Open Stadiums activists have noted that any credit for internal parliamentary pressure should be ascribed to two women in Iran’s parliament who have backed moves to allow women to watch live sport. Asked if they think their male representatives actually support the ban or are afraid of putting their neck on the line, they replied: “They don’t care about women’s rights.”