With the World Cup in Russia less than 100 days away now, excitement is escalating for obsessive fans around the world. Even in places that have long excluded women from watching sports events in person, the ground is shifting; in January, Saudi Arabia lifted its long-standing ban on women in stadiums.
But in Iran, women who are enthusiastic soccer and volleyball fans are still barred from even watching matches in stadiums—and are detained by police when they try.
This month, global soccer’s top official, FIFA president Gianni Infantino, had a chance to side with Iran’s women and insist they be allowed into Azadi Stadium when he was in Tehran to preside over a match between top teams Esteghlal and Persepolis.
Instead, he joined a public event that excluded women entirely—in a stadium that seats 100,000.
“When Mr. Infantino was enjoying a football match in men-only stadium, Iranian female football fans were under arrest,” wrote @OpenStadiums, an Iranian women’s advocacy group on Twitter.
As for women and girls who hoped to cheer their teams, at least 35 were detained by police outside Azadi Stadium, (Ironically, “azadi” means “freedom” in Farsi.) The group detained included teenagers and women dressed as boys who regularly risk arrest attempting to sneak in to cheer their teams.
The prospect of being detained is ever-present yet women in Iran have been protesting the ban on half the population in stadiums for decades, defiantly posting their photos on social media.
After Saudi Arabia lifted its ban in January, Iran is now the outlier barring women from sports stadiums. Journalist Negar Ehsan spoke for many Iranian women when she wrote, “I have to confess, after I saw the photos of Saudi women in football stadium, I feel like crying for two reasons: I was happy for Saudi women who were oppressed for so long and at the same time I was sad for how patient we have been.”
Iran is responsible for the ban on women in stadiums. But world sports bodies like FIFA have important leverage–and they should not drop the ball on women’s rights.
Infantino met with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and the country’s top sports officials. He could and should have conditioned his attendance at the soccer match on women being allowed into the stadium.
Instead, FIFA tolerated and condoned these segregated stadiums and contributed to a dangerous situation where women had to risk arrest to cheer their teams.
Iran’s discriminatory ban on women attending soccer sports tournaments dates to 1981. In 2012, the ban was extended to volleyball. Iranian women have tried to reverse this policy through direct appeals to FIFA and the global volleyball federation, the FIVB. Iranian women were finally allowed back into basketball stadiums last month to watch the first round of the International Basketball Federation World Cup 2019 qualifier between the Iranian and Iraqi national teams. Yet Iranian authorities seem to be applying different set of standards for who can watch men’s soccer and volleyball matches in stadiums.
These powerful international sports federations have ignored Iranian women, but since Iran wants to play and host international tournaments, FIFA has enormous leverage to insist Iran play by the rules and stop discriminating against women.
Iran’s “men-only” stadium policies are part of a larger pattern of discrimination and human-rights violations on the basis of gender. As Human Rights Watch has documented, women in Iran face discrimination in personal status laws such as marriage, divorce, child custody and even dress code, as well as hiring discrimination in the workforce, and restrictions on travel.
FIFA also has new tools to insist on women’s rights to attend. In June, FIFA put in place its first human-rights policy and created a human-rights advisory board. The human-rights policies are crystal clear: no discrimination against women is allowed. Article 3 of FIFA’s statutes (pdf) states that “discrimination of any kind… is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
FIFA has the right and responsibility to act.
Iranian women activists who were detained for trying to buy tickets to the event Infantino attended deserve better. Infantino should stand up for women by telling Iran that if the country can’t play by global rules and admit women to matches, it can no longer host FIFA events.