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A female Iranian soccer fan.
Reuters/Dylan Martinez
One small step for womankind.
GAME ON

Iranian women won a small victory in a long quest to join the “public happiness” of football

By Ephrat Livni

Before the soccer match in Tehran even began on Saturday (Nov. 10), Iranian women already felt the thrill of victory. For the first time since a de facto ban on female attendance was instituted after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, about 1,000 women were permitted to attend a live soccer game at a public stadium.

Open Stadiums has long been campaigning for the change. Since 2005, the movement of Iranian women has worked with women’s and human rights organizations at home and abroad to advocate for an end to gender discrimination in local stadiums. In June, women were allowed into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch a broadcast of Iran playing Spain in the World Cup games in Russia at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, but only after demanding entrance when their attendance was initially permitted and then rescinded.

Before Saturday’s game, a spokesperson for Open Stadiums, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that overturning women’s exclusion “has been our dream for decades…We are always excluded from public happiness and excitement.”

Iranian journalist Elaheh Hamidikia shared footage of women gathering at a separate entrance before Saturday’s match in the Asian Football Confederation champion league finals between Iran’s Persepolis team and the Kashima Antlers from Japan. After the game, women waited more than 45-minutes behind a gate to be let out of the stadium. Hamidikia noted that some of the female attendees were soccer players and athletes and some were family members of  local football federation workers.

Mindy Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, also commented on which women were excluded from attending, and pointed out that the number of female fans able to attend the match was tiny compared to the stadium’s capacity of 100,000.

Notably, women from other countries are allowed to attend games at the stadium in Tehran. For example, last year, Syrian women were permitted entrance to a qualifying match for the World Cup while Iranians of the same gender protested outside. Some local women had purchased tickets but were barred entrance because the sale was due to a “technical glitch,” organizers said.

FIFA, under pressure from Open Stadiums, has been pushing Iran to lift the ban, which is not written into local law, and is simply a long-standing practice (authorities had previously argued that stadium infrastructure didn’t allow for mixed gender attendance). A visit to Tehran by FIFA chief Gianni Infantino in March prompted Open Stadiums to tweet: “When Mr. Infantino was enjoying a football match in men-only stadium, Iranian female football fans were under arrest.”

Infantino described Saturday’s game as a “historic and festive day for football, a real breakthrough” in a statement. “I was delighted to personally witness that, for the first time in 40 years, Iranian female football fans were allowed to attend an official match again…This is the power of football and makes it all worthwhile!”

Open Stadiums is now demanding that the Asian Football Confederation let them know when Iranian women can start buying tickets to matches, and noted that their demands had been ignored for too long.

For women and men in other countries who aren’t excluded from this kind of public participation, it’s difficult to imagine just what attending such events signifies, and what it might feel like to be included for the first time. In a piece in The Lily in January, Iranian sports fan Yeganeh Rezaian wrote that her “life changed forever” the first time she had the “breathtaking experience” of attending a game at a major stadium when she watched the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors play in the Oakland Arena in California.

“There are not enough words to describe the exhilaration, the energy, the happiness and, oh yes, the sense of equality I felt at that moment,” Rezaian wrote. “I screamed a lot during that game while cheering the Warriors on, but choked up several times wishing I could have done that just once at home in Iran.”

Even though the Japanese team took the victory on Saturday, beating Persepolis 2-0 in overtime, the game was nonetheless a win for Iranian women. But the match between female sports fans and an oppressive system is not over yet. The quest to participate in events of public happiness will continue after this breakthrough, perhaps even more so now that they’ve had a taste of the thrill of participation.