eye witness Female fans longing to follow their team
Protests in Russia and Tehran see support for the campaign to allow women to watch football in Iran
“It is their right, they have to be in the stadiums, football is not for men only” Women’s rights activist “Sara”
They had brought signs and banners but, most importantly, they had brought tickets too. Outside the Saint Petersburg Stadium, shortly before Iran were preparing to play Morocco at the 2018 World Cup finals back in June, a small group of activists were staging a protest under the watchful but non-interventionist eye of the nearby Russian police.
“Support Iranian women to attend stadiums #NoBan4Women,” read the biggest and most prominent signs. Iranian fans, both men and women, stopped to take photographs and make victory signs.
“It is their right, they have to be in the stadiums, football is not for men only,” said Sara, who had organised for the signs to be there. Sara is an Iranian activist who runs the popular @OpenStadiums Twitter account, which has almost single-handedly brought global attention to one of world football’s most pressing issues: the near four-decade long ban on women from attending matches in Iran.
Online activism is dangerous work in Iran. “Sara” is not her real name and she has to carefully communicate by encrypted messenger.
Activists are routinely jailed in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison for far less. But, for a few weeks at least, Russia had offered her a much safer space to protest. FIFA had given Sara and her group permission to carry the banner into the stadium – something which would usually be prohibited. FIFA would later argue that the poster was a social rather than a political message.
But this was also a special game for a different reason. It was the first time that Sara had legally attended a match, with her own ticket.
“Every time we went to demonstrate, it never happened,” she said of her previous attempts in Iran to buy a ticket outside Tehran’s huge Azadi Stadium, shortly before finding her seat ahead of the
Morocco game. “Now football is going from two dimensions to three dimensions.”
At the start of this year, two major football powers still upheld bans on women attending football matches. Saudi Arabia was one, but that ban was lifted at the behest of the country’s new, young crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The Saudi ban on women driving was also lifted, although scores of feminist activists were later put in jail and some were even sent to death row.
In Iran, the ban stayed firmly in place. Back in March, FIFA president Gianni Infantino visited Tehran, ostensibly to see the derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal, which is one of the biggest games in Asia. The match was held at the Azadi Stadium and the atmosphere was explosive, with 100,000 people packed into the ground nine hours before kick-off. Inside two huge portraits – of the Imam Khomeini, who led the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and the Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current spiritual leader
– dominated the stadium, towering over the east stand. One half of the stadium wore the red colours of Persepolis, the other half were in the blue of Esteghlal.
The Iranian press reported that Infantino would meet president Hassan Rouhani to press him on the stadium ban. Infantino’s predecessor, Sepp Blatter, made the same journey and asked about the same issue but with no success.
As Infantino settled into his seat at the Azadi to watch the derby, outside the stadium 35 young women and girls, some dressed as men and wearing fake beards, were being arrested for trying to illegally gain entrance to the stadium.
Sara has been campaigning against the ban for more than a decade. When she started out in 2005 she would protest with a few hundred women outside the Azadi before Iran home games. But when the political climate turned harsher after the election of the hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the protests declined. With the failure in 2009 of the Green Revolution – an uprising against what many people thought was the theft of that year’s presidential election – the protests stopped altogether. So Sara turned to social media to get her voice out. “I was completely alone,” she says. “Tweeting these organisations, keeping my identity secret. You don’t want to be discovered. Sometimes I get really afraid.”
But in recent years there had been greater hope of change. Ahmadinejad has been replaced by Rouhani, who is seen as a relative moderate and had made positive noises to Blatter about lifting the ban, which wasn’t, it turned out, absolute.
One home international against Bahrain in 2005 saw some Iranian female relatives of the players and officials enter the stadium. And foreign female fans have long been allowed in to the Azadi, just not any Iranians, much to the chagrin on Sara and her fellow activists. One activist told me that hundreds of Syrian women were allowed into Iran’s final 2018 World Cup qualifier and that it was even possible for Iranian women to buy tickets. But still they weren’t allowed in. “We were there, outside
the stadium and the side opened and all of a sudden you could buy tickets. They don’t sell us tickets,” explained Jazmin (not her real name). “The guards were really sorry we couldn’t go in. But the Syrian women could go in! The ban is just for Iranian women! Australian, Irish women.”
So the arrival of Infantino provided an opportunity. Sara and her fellow activists believed that there was no way anyone would be arrested with the FIFA president there, so they began to formulate a plan to attend the game.
As there was no official law against women entering stadiums – the ban had been decreed unofficially shortly after Iran’s Islamic revolution and has simply continued ever since – Sara and her friends decided to turn up at the stadium without any disguises. But at the stadium the group was denied entry and told they would be arrested if they didn’t leave. They were arrested anyway.
Sara got there late and arrived to find out that 35 people had been arrested and taken to the Vozara Detention Center, a jail often used to hold women for morality crimes. They included her friends as well as random groups of other women who had been caught trying to sneak in dressed as men.
All 35 women and girls were put in the same room but they were allowed to keep their phones. A selfie Taken by one of the women went viral on Telegram, which is by far the most popular socialmedia platform in Iran. They all exchanged numbers and tips about what to do next time and, more importantly, how to more accurately walk and generally act like a man to avoid detection.
Meanwhile, Sara had sprung into action and contacted two female Iranian MPs to help pressure for their release.
“The Islamic republic is not a whole package of bad people,” Sara explains when we met shortly after the Tehran derby. “If you are living in this country you have to find some ways into the system.”
The system is so complex – split between political, religious and military power bases that often conflict and overlap – that change is slow.
“In Saudi,” Sara says of the recent lifting of the ban there, “one person decides. Here, we have so many people. So many ayatollahs. There is a president and cabinet. And the supreme leader.” She believes the best scenario is to let women in step by step. “But they have to start it!”
And it isn’t just activists speaking out these days. Prominent players have also raised the issue publicly, with the most famous example being the captain of the national team, Masoud Shojaei.
After Iran secured qualification for russia 2018, the entire team was taken for a reception with president rouhani. Traditionally, players would ask for better bonuses or more funding for the national team. But on this occasion Shojaei raised the issue of the stadium ban with the president directly.
“I can ask for something more important,” he said when we met before the World Cup. “To do something for my people as the captain of the national team.
“I said to the president the situation. And he was kind. He said: ‘We have a plan to do this’.”
But the ban wasn’t lifted, and instead Shojaei found himself in the international wilderness. Shortly after that meeting he returned to Greece where he was playing for Athens side Panionios. They were in the Europa League and had been drawn against Maccabi Tel Aviv. There is a strict but unofficial ban on Iranian sports men and women competing against Israelis, and conservative voices in Iran demanded Shojaei and his Iranian team-mate Ehsan Hajsafi refuse to play in the tie. But the club needed them and they both made an appearance in the second game in Greece.
Shojaei was left out of the national
“They [Iranian women] are the ones who won tonight. Hopefully the first of many” Sergio Ramos, after Spain beat Iran at this summer’s World Cup
squad for months, until coach Carlos Queiroz slowly re-introduced him shortly before the finals. “My job was to read the situation, cool it down. Let the dust go down,” Queiroz later said when asked about the decision to bring back Shojaei. “I was absolutely in control of my decisions and I always call with all freedom and authority the players that I want.”
When the World Cup arrived, little was expected of Iran, who were drawn in a group with a very talented Morocco team, as well as Spain and Portugal. But Sara’s first game ended in jubilation. An injury-time own goal gave Iran a 1-0 victory against the north African side, their first World Cup win since they beat USA at France 98. “I don’t know how to celebrate, I was shocked,” she said after the game. “It was something I had never experienced before. I need to go to more games.”
The next game gave the campaign even more visibility. For the first time in decades it was decided at the last minute that women would be allowed in to the Azadi
Stadium to watch Iran play Spain on the big screen. Spain won 1-0 but afterwards defender Sergio Ramos tweeted: “They [Iranian women] are the ones who won tonight. Hopefully the first of many.” His post has been liked nearly 75,000 times.
Iran’s hopes of reaching the knockout stage ended with a 1-1 draw against Portugal, during which Cristiano Ronaldo escaped a red card for throwing an elbow. “Elbow is a red card in the rules, the rules doesn’t say if it’s Messi or Ronaldo,” said Queiroz afterwards. He went home dejected, but the good news is that the coach has agreed to stay on at least until January’s 2019 Asian Cup.
Sara and other activists in Iran continue to take huge risks to get the ban lifted.
Following his visit back in March, Infantino seemed to suggest that it was diplomacy done quietly behind closed doors that would achieve the greatest success. But that doesn’t seem to be working. The FIFA president made no comment on the arrests while in Iran. Later he would claim that he had brought up the issue in private, although he didn’t say with whom.
The fact that FIFA allowed Sara’s banner into the Iran versus Morocco game shows there are some within FIFA sympathetic to the cause of lifting Iran’s stadiums ban. But Sara believes that Infantino’s visit should have ended it once and for all. It was, she says, a wasted opportunity and there has been silence from Infantino on the issue ever since. “His words go into thin air,” Sara says. “Nothing happens.”
As ever in Iran, two competing narratives appear to be fighting it out for supremacy. On the one hand Iran now seems to be doubling down on the ban. At the start of the domestic season the country’s Fars news agency reported that 500 CCTV cameras would be installed to try pick out troublemakers and in particular female fans disguised as men.
“The presence of girls in the stadium in male disguise is an insult to women,” said Abdolhamid Ahmadi, deputy sports minister, quoted by opposition media. “It tarnishes the images of sports… these ladies even create problems for the spectators.”
While in Tehran, FIFA president Gianni Infantino claimed he had brought up the issue [of women at football] in private, although he didn’t say with whom
The first Tehran derby of the 2018-19 season was again played in front of an all male crowd. Again, women were arrested for trying to enter the stadium dressed as men. But then it was announced at the last minute that the female relatives of Iranian players and officials would be allowed in to the Azadi to watch a friendly game in October, against Bolivia. Hundreds of women saw Iran win 2-1 even though hundreds more were left locked outside. They had arrived in the hope that they too may be allowed in, even if they weren’t related to a player or FA official. At the time it seemed like a significant move and there were hopes that the same would happen for the crunch second leg Asian Champions League semi-final between Persepolis and Qatar’s Al Saad. Instead, it was announced that no women, whether related to any players or otherwise, would be allowed in at all. Iran’s female football activists might have taken one step forward in recent months, but they soon took two steps back.
“This, going into the stadium, comes out of my heart. I am doing this not just because it is a right we do not have but because I would love to go to the stadiums,” said Jazmin, who has never seen Persepolis play in the flesh.
“For this one I am willing to sacrifice and pay the price for it.”
Global support...fans in Saint Petersburg at the World Cup with Sara’s flag
Protest...an Iranian activist in Russia
Men only... derby day in Tehran as Persepolis take on Esteghlal
Meeting...Iran’s minister of sport and youth Masoud Soltanifar (right) with Gianni Infantino
Skipper...Masoud Shojaei (in white) leads Iran out against Morocco
At home...women prepare to watch the Spain game on a big screen in the Azadi
Sound...Iran fans make themselves heard