Before setting out for Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium, I was preoccupied with two thoughts. The first was the certainty that we would not be let in. So, like before, we aimed for the stadium’s western gate. The gate is used by reporters and photographers, buses carrying the athletes and cars bringing high officials to their VIP seats. When the doors are closed to you, you hope that perhaps a reporter or a photographer will notice you — or perhaps that an official would even hear your voice.
The second thought was about Borhan Mobin Co. It sells tickets online, and had claimed that, due to an error in verifying IDs, it had accidentally sold seven tickets to women for September 5’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and Syria. I did a quick calculation. My two sisters, a friend of mine and I were four of those seven who had purchased tickets online to see the football match. Two woman reporters had reported on their online ticket purchase and social networks, Twitter and Instagram were inundated with women who were saying that this time they would get into Azadi Stadium. Only seven? Really?
Our route took us east to west through Hakim Expressway. At about 6pm, we drove through Resalat Tunnel. We could see passengers waving Iranian flags from car windows. We four girls did the same. The difference was that we were in a hurry to get to the gate, whereas they perhaps wanted to get a better parking space.
When you arrive at the western gate, you are not allowed to park, and no stopping is allowed, not even for a few minutes. When four women are in a car, staff will not permit you to use the stadium’s parking lots anyway. You have to cross the bridge over the Tehran-Karaj Expressway, then park and walk. After 20 minutes of walking, you come to the iron fences of Azadi Stadium. When we arrive, there are about 20 other women waiting, holding Iranian flags. All of them purchased tickets online, except a middle-aged woman, who introduces herself as Mahin. Of course, once it was discovered that they were women, they were informed that their accounts had been refunded, but they came anyway, just in case — just to try their luck. “My daughter wanted to go,” says Mahin. “I came with her so that she would not be alone.”
From the moment you arrive, you are harassed by two separate groups. First, by the guards, who constantly try to get rid of you. No matter where you stand, they surround you, bombarding you with instructions: “Keep moving,” “Don’t stand here,” “No assembly,” and “Leave now”. The second group, however, are more difficult to bear. They are spectators, men who mock you, taunt you, laugh at you, and then go in the stadium. They are a minority of men, not all of them, but they do exist.“Why are you here?” they want to know. Or they say, “They won’t let you in, so turn back,” before going in themselves. Perhaps they are in the same minority of men that want to keep the doors to the stadiums closed to women. Perhaps when they return home at night they tell their mother or their sister or their wife or their girlfriend about the game, the interesting aspects of it. They will expect them to listen with rapt attention while they reminisce.
Stadium guards will not let you stand in one spot. A western side door opens for cars with permits. The space around the door is crowded with cops and anti-riot police. Sometimes, photographers extend their cameras in our direction as they are driven into the stadium, reaching out the car windows to get a good shot.
The number of women increases, little by little. Two policewomen emerge from inside the stadium, accompanied by two agents holding video cameras, and walk towards us. One policewoman points her finger to show the agents which women to film. One of the policewomen is wearing a badge on her chador that says “Seyedeh Fatemeh.” She walks towards the women she singles out, and tells them in a rough voice: “We have filmed you. Either leave immediately or I’ll order you to be arrested right now!”
But the order is preempted by the arrival of four buses. At first we think they are the buses carrying the footballers, but then, through the big windshields and the windows, we see the passengers, their faces painted, carrying flags. The main gates are opened for the buses, opened for these fans.
Get Yourself a Syrian Flag!
The four buses are followed by four vans. They discharge their passengers outside the stadium — they don’t have VIP passes. There are about 100 of them, Syrian fans with at least 20 women among them. They let them all in through the side door on the right. The women carry Syrian flags and nobody is there to film them. They are not subjected to even to a simple check of their tickets or their passports. A few Iranian women speak up in protest, and so does a reporter getting ready to enter the stadium. The answer he received? “Get in fast and shut up.” The protesting women had harsher responses, before being instructed to disperse. When they protested louder, they were told: “If you don’t like it, then get yourself a Syrian flag and go in.”
So in order to get into your own stadium, in your own country, you have to carry a Syrian flag. The Syrian female fans were calm, undisturbed and even smiling, while the Iranian women stood nervously under the trees outside the western gate. To understand how it felt, you have to have seen it through our eyes. The word “chagrin” does not begin to do it justice.
The policewomen threatened us non-stop. One of them seized the mobile phone of a woman who was filming what was going on. She wiped the video off the phone before returning it to its owner. Vans were brought in to threaten us with arrest, and parked up to the north of the western gate.
But then something changed.
Four women — three of them quite young, another middle-aged — took flags from the some of the Syrian fans. They draped them over their shoulders. One of the flags featured a picture of Bashar al-Assad in the middle of its group of stars. The four women joined the crowd and walked toward the gate. The other women did not want to follow, but at that moment, what was right or wrong was not a consideration. What dominated every other feeling was anger. “I want to go in!” a weeping woman named Ghazaleh shouted at the guards. Less than half an hour later, one of the women who had tried to sneak in among the Syrian throng returned. She said they had been discovered as Iranians and been turned back. But Sahar, another young woman carrying a Syrian flag, had managed to get in.
The men no longer mocked us. Or at least I did not hear them. Perhaps my ears were filled with the threats of police officers — and with the laughter of Syrian women.
Now I didn’t notice any more intimidating, humiliating looks from the men, whcih had been so prominent before. Still, the sight of Syrian girls and women entering the stadium carrying flags — some of them the yellow flags of Lebanese Hezbollah as well as the Syrian ones — was no less humiliating.
Tragedy’s Last Act
Before I get to last act of this tragedy, let me present you with a picture: Of women reporters, standing there just like us before the stadium gates. They too wanted to wipe themselves clean, to get rid of the stain society has dictated — that as women they could not enter the stadium. For them, going into the stadium was not a mere yearning. When they talked, you could see: They have been humiliated throughout their professional lives, and not only by men but also by women. Their credentials as sports journalists have always been questioned because they had not been able to watch even one football game in person.
The tragedy ended with a lie. Guards told us to wait. When the game started, they said, we could go in. Ten minutes into the game, they closed the last door, the side entrance to the right. The policewomen were inside, behind steel bars. The video cameras were still zoomed in on women standing outside.
We walked back the 20 minutes to where we had parked our car. We could hear the taunts of men again, audible in the midst of the honking horns of the cars on the expressway.
The tragedy was not that we were not allowed into the stadium, or that we did not manage to get in. It was that, as the game was starting, we walked in the opposite direction of men, the men who were still going toward the stadium, away from us.