FIFA has warned Iranian officials that they must end the ban on women attending stadiums to watch football and other sporting events, and that Iran risked being suspended from international competitions if it did not change its policy.
Giovanni Vincenzo "Gianni" Infantino, the president of football’s international governing body, wrote officially to Mehdi Taj, the president of the Iranian football federation on June 18, expressing anger over Iranian officials’ recent violence against the “Dokhtaran-e Azadi” (Freedom Girls) protesters during a match between Iran and Syria.
Infantino gave Iran a deadline of July 15, 2022, the opening date of the next World Cup, to comply with the orders and “allow Iranian women to enter all stadiums across the country...without any conditions.” The explicit reference to “all stadiums” means that FIFA is aware of Iran’s recent tactics of trying to appear as though it was complying with FIFA regulations by allowing select groups of women into a few stadiums.
A Long History of Protest
Iranian women have been campaigning for the ban to be lifted for more than a decade. The “Roosari Sefid-ha” (White Scarfs) protesters pioneered the movement, demonstrating outside Azadi Stadium ahead of a match between Iran and Bahrain in 2006. Fifty women, including well-known activist and journalist Asieh Amini and renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, sat on the ground outside the entrance and demanded officials open the stadium doors to them.
Over the years, they adapted their methods, including dressing as men in order to enter stadiums — a tactic made famous by football fan, poet, author, journalist, actress, and art student Zahra Khoshnavaz.
During a two-day trip to Iran in 2017, Gianni Infantino met with President Hassan Rouhani. When he returned to Switzerland, he told a Guardian interviewer: “Obviously our first option is not sanctioning and suspension. We will negotiate for Iranian women’s right to enter stadiums, but if we can’t reach an agreement, we will definitely use more severe measures.”
It was after this statement that the Iranian Football Federation began allowing select groups of girls into stadium in an effort to present to the world that it was following FIFA’s rules and listening to its demands. In 2018, a select group was allowed to enter the stadium to watch Iran’s national team play Bolivia.
A group of women were also brought into watch the Iranian team Perspolis play Japanese team Kashima, but just as officials including Mehdi Taj more or less presented the group to Infantino, women outside the stadium were arrested for protesting, and driven to the desert outside the city to prevent them from returning until the match had finished.
Honoring FIFA Values — But Not for the Right Reasons
On March 3, 2019, the head of the Tehran judiciary, Gholamhossein Esmaili, met with reporters, stating: “Iranian women entering stadiums is not our people’s problem, we have more serious issues to take care of,” but stopped short of mentioning what those problems were. “Today FIFA says we should let Iranian women into stadiums. Then the next day it will say that men and women must sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder. Another day it might bring up the question of hijab. We must not treat vulgar subjects as more worthwhile than they really are.” He also admitted that the only reason Iranians were letting women into stadiums was to avoid suspension from taking part in international competitions.
Police also stated that they had installed 500 closed-circuit cameras around Azadi Stadium in order to identify female fans posing as men and prevent them from entering the stadium.
In 2018, the Freedom Girls went onto the Facebook page of FIFA’s Asian Section and urged: “Help Persepolis female fans enter Azadi stadium,” doing what they could to raise awareness about the fact that stadium doors were still closed to them.
But the recent news that officials had used violence against female protesters prior to the Iran vs. Syria match in Tehran indicated a change in authorities’ tactics, and shocked the international community.
In June this year, one female fan who has tried different ways to enter stadiums over the years discovered that women could buy tickets online for an international friendly match. She bought one straight away, only to find a few minutes later that she had been refunded the ticket price and the option for women to buy tickets had been taken down from the site. It led a group of five women to meet outside the stadium and attempt to make their way in to the game.
But police officers were rapid to respond, stopping them, verbally insulting them and telling them to leave the area. When one of the women tried to record the police swearing at them on her phone, the officers took her phone and physically assaulted her, throwing her to the ground and putting their boots on her chest. The other women intervened, and three of them sustained injuries. Two of the protesters were arrested. FIFA has been sent footage of the violence.
Although the Iranian Football Federation’s official website reported the news of FIFA’s recent ultimatum, no other Iranian media outlet reported the news. And Mehdi Taj does not appear to be backing down from his previous position and his statements. But now FIFA is taking action, and finally demonstrating that it does not share Gholamhossein Esmaili's view that the ban on women entering stadiums is “not a big problem.” The football federation is likely to face severe repercussions if it does not genuinely reform its policy. If Iran wants to compete on the international stage, it must adhere to FIFA regulations, which state that every individual has the right to attend football games, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or religion.
Token Women Allowed to Watch Football — Again, November 12, 2018
150 Female Fans Allowed into Azadi Stadium, October 19, 2018
Women Arrested as Authorities Step up CCTV Surveillance at Azadi Stadium, September 28, 2018
Women Enter Stadium as Fans Refuse to Go Home, June 20, 2018