Explained: The long battle of Iran’s women to enter stadiums

Om Marathe
Iranian women cheer as they arrive to the Azadi Stadium to watch the 2022 World Cup qualifier soccer match between Iran and Cambodia, in Tehran, Iran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

On Thursday, Iran’s women scored an important victory, as they were allowed to buy tickets and attend a football match in their own country for the first time since 1981.

Although in the recent past, Iranian authorities had allowed select female audiences, such as relatives of team members, to attend matches, the current move is the most significant yet in erasing the country’s four-decades-old legacy of not allowing women from entering sports stadiums.

In the World Cup qualifier match in Tehran which women attended, Iran pummelled Cambodia 14-0, but it was their presence in the arena that eclipsed the Iranian team’s glory.

Iranian women and sports stadiums

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when the country’s last monarch, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown by forces led by the conservative Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, an orthodox set of policies were put into force in the West Asian nation. Among these included the segregation of men and women in public spaces.

In 1981, conservative elements introduced a ban on women entering stadiums to watch football, a highly popular sport in the country. This ban was later extended to include volleyball and basketball as their popularity increased.

However, in the past two decades, resistance against keeping women out of stadiums began to build up. In 2005, a protest was organised outside Tehran’s Azadi stadium which carried the signs “let the other half of the society in”. Women also entered the stadium disguised as men, concealing their hair under caps and wearing fake facial hair.

The acclaimed 2006 film Offside by Iranian filmmaker Jaffar Panahi was based on the women’s activism.

In 2013, the activist group Open Stadiums was formed, and it has since pressured international sporting bodies such as FIFA, as well as human rights organisations to help ease the restrictions on Iran’s women.

The self-immolation of Sahar Khodayari

Khodayari, a 29-year-old woman, had in March 2019 sneaked into the Azadi stadium dressed as a man, intending to subvert the ban on women. Upon detection by the police, she was taken to court where Khodayari was looking at a sentence of 6 months to 2 years, the BBC reported. In September this year, Khodayari set herself on fire outside the court, and died in hospital a week later due to third-degree burns.

The young woman’s death caused a major outcry in Iran and around the world. The hashtag #bluegirl trended online, referring to the team colours of the Esteghlal club that Khodayari supported. Famous figures, including a former captain of the Iranian football team, called for a boycott of football games as long as the ban on women in stadiums remained in place.

FIFA also said that they would “stand firm” on women being allowed to enter, the BBC reported. The sporting body turned up the heat on Iranian authorities, and there loomed a threat of Iran being banned from the qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The opening of access to women is believed to have followed this international pressure.