Iranian Women Finally Get Their Moment at a Soccer Match

Iranian Women Finally Get Their Moment at a Soccer Match

The Wall Street Journal- Thousands of women bought tickets to an international soccer match in Iran after being allowed to do so for the first time in four decades, cheering on the national team in a watershed moment for a daring women’s rights movement.

A de facto ban on women in soccer stadiums since just after the 1979 revolution has long been a rallying cry for proponents of social freedom in Iran. It has hit home in a country where soccer is the far-most-popular sport, and the movement became an international cause in September after a young woman set herself on fire and died protesting her arrest for sneaking into a match.

On Thursday, Iran’s government set aside more than 3,000 tickets for women to attend Iran’s match against Cambodia in a World Cup qualifier. The gesture came after pressure from FIFA, the soccer world’s governing body, which called for an end to the ban in the wake of Sahar Khodayari’s self-immolation.

Mona, a 30-year-old teacher, came to the stadium carrying the Iranian flag and tricolored clothes to match, prompting passersby to smile and tell her to have fun at the game.

“People were crying with excitement,” she said after the match. The national team didn’t disappoint the jubilant crowd, including the first-time spectators. Amid the deafening sound of vuvuzela horns, Iran’s “Team Melli” beat Cambodia 14-0. “We must have brought them good luck,” Mona said.

The rare concession from Iran’s government was the second win for Iranian women and families in a week, after Tehran on Oct. 2 passed a law allowing Iranian women married to foreigners to pass on citizenship to their children, and with it benefits such as working rights and health care.

Iran’s vibrant women’s rights movement has endured decades of political oppression, often resorting to bold tactics to draw attention to discrimination. Last year, a wave of women defied the government by taking off their legally mandated headscarves in public and posting videos of their acts on social media. Several were arrested.

Thursday’s move comes against a backdrop of social overhauls in other conservative Middle Eastern nations, such as Saudi Arabia, which opened its soccer stadium doors to women last year.

Some critics expressed concern that Thursday’s gesture was merely window-dressing for a government that has been hesitant to introduce any meaningful social measures.

While FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Thursday said the allocation of tickets for women was a very positive step forward, adding, “There can be no stopping or turning back now,” Amnesty International called the move “a cynical publicity stunt.”

While Tehran’s Azadi stadium has a capacity of more than 78,000 spectators, only a few thousand tickets were put on sale, likely to comply with FIFA antidiscrimination regulations while limiting the number of female fans. Women were seated in a separate section in the largely empty stadium.

The controversy over women attending soccer matches has exposed longstanding divides between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and conservatives who wield considerable influence in Iran’s ruling system.

Mr. Rouhani’s legal office has said he supports women’s right to attend matches. Government spokesman Ali Rabiei, who attended the match, denied that foreign pressure had influenced the decision to lift the ban. “If the behavior [of the spectators] is reasonable, this will continue and there will be no problem,” the IRNA news agency reported him as saying.

But the idea has stirred fierce criticism from conservatives and religious leaders who see restrictions on what women can wear and interactions among genders as irreplaceable parts of Islamic and Iranian culture.

“The enemy wants to erode our resistance and destroy our social and spiritual fabric,” Iran’s prosecutor-general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, said in August about FIFA, the reformist daily Etemad reported. “We have to be wary of the enemy’s infiltration into the various fields of politics, culture and art.”

Iran’s constitution doesn’t explicitly prohibit women from entering stadiums. However, since 1981, clerical authorities have effectively prevented women from attending sports events because they oppose genders mixing at events where participants, as they see it, are dressed inappropriately.

Exceptions have been made. In 2005, a smaller group of dozens of women were allowed into the stadium to watch part of a match against Bahrain. Last year, authorities allowed some women to watch a live screening at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium of the national men’s team game against Spain. But neither event led to broader reforms.

Iranian women have for years tried to sneak into soccer games by dressing as men—a practice that provided the plot of the 2006 film “Offside” by Cannes-winning Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

Ms. Khodayari’s death ignited a social media campaign and drew a furor from human-rights organizations. She became known as “Blue Girl” after the color of her favorite team, Esteghlal, a club from Tehran. The team’s players even defied authorities by posing in jerseys bearing her new moniker. During Thursday’s match, fans in the stadium chanted her name.

Two weeks after her death, a FIFA delegation visited Iran to reiterate its “firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely and that the number of women who attend the stadiums be determined by the demand.”

At the Azadi stadium, Sara, a 34-year-old software developer wearing a jester hat in the colors of the Iranian flag, said attending the match represented “a small part of our rights.”

“All these free seats are the rights they didn’t give us. One day, I and women like me will be entitled to these seats,” she said.