Deprived From The Beautiful Game

Football, fútbol, futebol, soccer; whatever you may call it there is no more popular sport in the world. People from all walks of life enjoy playing it and attending live matches to support their favorite teams. Women enjoy it as much as men do, and it’s not a rare occurrence to see female football fans in stadiums all over the world. However, in Iran (as well as few other countries) being a woman attending a football match is frowned upon and even illegal or ‘banned’.

This ‘ban’ on women attending sports events along with males dates back to Iran’s 1979 revolution, when official outlooks towards womens’ roles in society transformed dramatically under the country’s new theocratic rulers. The leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran felt that the western game of football was in contradiction with the principles of Sharia. Football as a Western sports was considered as the means of Capitalistic Imperialism. Religious leaders were somehow disturbed by the ‘nakedness’ of the men who showed their legs and parts of body, that also at the presence of women.

After Iran’s revolution in 1979, women were prohibited from entering any sports venues. Under President Mohammad Khatami (1997–2005), these policies were loosened and women were permitted to watch volleyball tournaments. However, under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), the ban on women was reinstated.

Though more of a de facto ban than a constitutional ban, women are still prevented from entering stadiums. As a woman, if you try to enter a stadium, you will immediately, right at the gate be stopped from entering. Not many women actually even try to go and do that. Women who want to get into the stadiums dress as men.

There have been few protests in the past against the ban. In 1997, after Iran defeated Australia in World Cup qualification, millions of Iranians took to the streets and celebrated their national pride – with many women breaking down police barriers and storming the stadium. In the early 2000s, protests against the ban grew with the slogan “My share, half of Azadi”. These activists started a campaign called “Rusari Sefid-ha” or “Those wearing white scarves”. The campaign aimed at defending women’s right to attend stadiums freely.

White Scarf campaigners gained opprobrium among hardliners in 2005 as women boldly cheered behind the bars outside the entrance of Azadi Stadium (Ironically, Azadi means ‘Freedom’ in Farsi). Over the past 37 years, women have been barred from attending almost all men’s football games. Only in 2005, and at the end of Mohammad Khatami’s tenure, after women’s rights activists widely demanded their right to attend the 2006 World Cup qualifying games played in Iran, a group of female fans who crowded in front of Azadi Stadium were allowed to enter at the start of the second half of the Iran-Bahrain game. The event was attended by around 100,000 exclusively male fans.

Sporting events in Iran are only for male eyes, women have been systematically prevented from attending football matches since 2005 and stopped at the gates whenever they try to enter a stadium. However, this exclusion does not apply to foreign women. In order to show the world that they are against this stadium ban, Iranian women have been seen in several international sporting events holding signs in protest that read “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums”. Most recently, the Rio Olympics during Iran’s volleyball match against Russia on Monday.

Despite ongoing protests by Iranian human rights activists and FIFA’s call for Iran to allow women to watch football games from sports arenas, the ban remains in place. In an interview with Jila Baniyaqoub, an Iranian journalist who advocates for the rights of Iranian women to attend sporting events and have been in several protests herself said: “I want to be able to walk into a sports stadium and be proud of my identity as an Iranian woman and a fan of my national team.” Naturally, many women feel the same as her, and want to express their identity and be proud of their nationality when their teams play whether club or national.

In 2014, a group of women, including a 25 year old Iranian-British Ghoncheh Ghavami, were arrested for trying to attend a volleyball match in Tehran. Ghavami was sentenced to a year in jail, Ghavami was charged with ‘propaganda against the state.” She was imprisoned, spending time in solitary, but released after several months due to an international uproar.

When Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup, huge celebrations were held inside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Many distraught women were outside its doors – banned from entering. The move led to furious protests and a number of women were arrested. The Iran Football Federation released a statement which said: “In this ceremony only men are allowed to be present and women who like the national team are asked to avoid coming to the Azadi Stadium."

Granted, watching matches in restaurants might not be quite that dramatic. But Iran’s women love football and often refuse to be silenced. They often buy tickets on the black market, or use their male relatives ID numbers to buy online tickets – only to be turned away at stadium gates, while female fans from the opposing foreign team are waved through the gates.

On 13 May 2016, a 22 year old Iranian woman (We’ll call her “S” for security reasons), vowed that she’d attend a match played by her favorite team, the Tehran Persepolis FC. Even though women have been banned from attending men’s games. That didn’t stop her love for the team and her dream to see them play a live match. She achieved her goal when she disguised herself as a man and slipped into the stadium alongside roughly 95,000 spectators.

After her adventure, she published a video of herself in the stadium where she says, “I said I’d go to the stadium and now I’ve done it!”In a second video, "S" explains how she did it. She layered five T-shirts and five pairs of pants to hide her figure and to make herself appear bigger than she actually is. She also covered her face with so much paint that her “skin burned for five hours”.

She received a lot of criticism saying that she “should be burned” or “jailed”, but also received a lot of support from men and women alike. Some women commented that they wished they were as brave and had done the same. “S” responded to all of these comments by publishing another video in which she says that she had “no political motivation” and that she is just a “normal girl from a normal family”. She also said that quite a few fans in the stands had noticed that she was a girl but they “protected her as if she were a member of their family”.

While this young woman may have broadcast her adventures, she isn’t the only woman to have slipped into a stadium dressed as a man. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi made a film about these women called "Offside", which won the runner-up prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 2006. Later, he was even arrested and put in jail for his movie! Iranian women and men have taken great risks to draw attention to gender discrimination at sporting events. Offside, narrated the painful struggle of several women who because of their abundant love for football and their teams attempt to sneak into a football match by dressing as men.

It's certainly a devastating blow for Iran's female population. Football is highly popular among many Iranian women, despite the religious rules that bar them and deprive them from watching live matches in their stadiums. Nevertheless, they are still fighting for their rights courageously.

This ban has many negative effects on Iran’s chances of hosting sporting events. In March 2015, the United Arab Emirates was chosen to host the 2019 Asian Cup over Iran because of their intolerant policy. Iran is missing out on many opportunities and will continue to do so if things don’t change. Even though women are not able to attend matches between male teams, Football is getting massively popular in Iran among women in all ages.

Such discrimination is obviously a blatant violation of the statutes and guiding principles of FIFA, who has counted the Islamic republic of Iran football federation as a member for over 30 years without the slightest admonition. Enough is enough. The time has come for the world to call on FIFA, and for FIFA to call on Iran to put an end to discrimination and ban against women.

Barring women from entering football stadiums is a violation of article III of the FIFA statutes, its governing document, which states: “Discrimination of any kind against any Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin color, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”

The stadium ban, remarkably, has not prevented Iranian women from competing and winning in major international tournaments. Uniform permitting, that is: while FIFA officially lifted its ban on hijabs, similar rules in other sports still keep Iranian women from participating in all sorts of competitions around the world. FIFA became the first international organization to officially take up the issue of the hijab as a human rights issue but they still need to tackle more issues concerning football in Iran. The fact that women are encouraged to play and win medals under the Iranian flag but not allowed to watch live sport in public spaces in their own country is mind boggling.