In Iran, the doors to stadiums have once again been closed to women. On Tuesday, October 12, the Iranian and South Korean national football teams went head to head in a qualifying match for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It took place in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium without any spectators. Iranian officials cited the pandemic as the reason for the empty stadium, but Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of the late President Hashemi Rafsanjani and long-time advocate for women’s sports and sports fans, described the move as a “trick” and a “deceit,” an attempt to fool the international football authority into believing that Iran will follow its orders to allow women into stadiums to watch sports.
In the four-decade history of the Islamic Republic, women have never been officially permitted to enter stadiums, but this has not stopped them from fighting for this basic right. Throughout these years women have tried everything to get into stadiums. Sometimes they succeeded and sometimes they failed. They have been beaten and arrested. One died after setting herself alight.
Here, IranWire sets out a summary of the last 40 years and Iranian women’s fight to break open the locks on stadium doors.
June 6, 1981: Tehran Derby
This was the last time that Iranian women were allowed watch a football game in person without fighting for it. Without any restrictions, 1,500 women bought tickets, sat in the stadium with men and watched a football game between Tehran clubs Persepolis and Esteghlal. But a ban against women entering stadiums soon followed. At that time, it was not a Shia religious authority or a top Islamic Republic official who banned women, but the president of the Shiroudi (Amjadiyeh) Sport Complex. Afterwards, Mostafa Davoudi, head of the Physical Education Organization (which later became the Ministry of Sports and Youth) and Iranian football federation official Hossein Abshenasan banned women spectators from all stadiums.
There are a few reports — many of them somewhat unreliable — that, in the 1980s, occasionally women wearing the full mandatory hijab were allowed into stadiums. There are also reports that some women, disguised as men, were able to watch men playing football, especially during cold seasons when they could camouflage themselves more effectively.
Autumn 1997: The First Time at Azadi Stadium
For the first time since the 1979 revolution, women were able to enter Azadi Stadium to greet the national men’s football team, which had qualified for the 1998 World Cup. Close to 400 women pushed their way into the stadium to welcome the players after they had arrived by army helicopters from Mehrabad airport. Of course, the state-run TV did not broadcast any photographs of women in the stands.
November 9, 2001: Parliament Puts Women Spectators on the Agenda
In November 2001, the Iranian parliament tabled the issue of women spectators. Members of the parliament, especially women, took a favorable view towards allowing women into stadiums. For instance, Tahereh Rezazadeh, a representative from Shiraz, used her position as a member of parliament to enter a stadium to watch a game between Shiraz Fajr and Qatar’s Al Sadd football clubs. After the game, she told the media that women must be allowed into stadiums. But no decision followed; parliament did nothing to make this happen.
November 15, 2001: A New Kind of Discrimination against Iranian Women
The FIFA World Cup qualifier game between the Iranian and Irish national football teams on November 15, 2001 marked the beginning of a new kind of discrimination against Iranian women. Irish women had no trouble in getting into the stadium, and sat next to Irish men to cheer on their team, but this was not the case for Iranian women. This discrimination was broadly panned in foreign media. Many foreign correspondents reported on it, among them an Italian woman journalist and Delphine Minoui, a French journalist of Iranian descent, both of whom described the excitement at the stadium and the ban on Iranian women from being able to witness it.
Autumn 2004: The “White Scarves” Campaign Is Born
During a friendly match between Iran and Germany, women who had managed to get into the stadium were violently pushed out by police and then unable to watch the game, whereas a number of German women, alone or with their families, sat in the stadium undisturbed. It was after this rough treatment of Iranian women that the “White Scarves” campaign was born. Wearing white scarves in public, women registered their protest against the ban.
June 3, 2005: First Offensive by the “White Scarves”
In 2005, just two weeks before the Iranian presidential election, approximately 25 Iranian women, all activists who had taken part in the “White Scarves” movements, were given permission to watch a football match between Iran and North Korea. They did not have tickets, but they were allowed to watch the game from a designated stand allocated to them after they gathered in protest outside the gates of the stadium. It was speculated that the Islamic Republic’s propaganda machine made the move for political gain in the run up to the election, which ended with the victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
June 8, 2005: Second Offensive by the “White Scarves”
During the qualifier games for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, a group of women’s rights activists, women lawyers and women reporters wrote a letter demanding to be allowed into the stadium. On the day of the game between Iran and Bahrain, a crowd of about 500 women gathered outside the east gate of Azadi Stadium. When the bus carrying Bahrain’s national football team arrived, the guards opened the gate to let the bus through, and when they tried to close it, the women pushed back. In the melee that ensued, one woman suffered a broken leg. Eventually, various agencies, including the security departments of the Physical Education Organization and Azadi Stadium and the Presidential Guard, came to an agreement to let the women in and they were able to watch the second half of the game.
Mohsen Mehr Alizadeh, head of the Physical Education Organization, had allowed a number of women film stars into the stadium to watch the game. Also present was Mohammad Khatami, at the time the president of the Islamic Republic. Some scenes for the movie Offside, directed by Jafar Panahi, which focuses on the theme of young women being unable to attend stadiums, was filmed during this event.
March 1, 2006: A Failed Attempt
On March 1, 2006, Iran and Costa Rica played a friendly football match in Tehran. A group of women joined “White Scarves” campaigners outside Azadi Stadium to protest against the ban on women spectators, but not only did they fail to gain access to the stadium, they were beaten and subjected to profanities by the stadium guards, who took photographs of them, forced them onto a bus and drove them to a location outside the city. The women returned to the stadium, but by that time, the game was over.
September 5, 2017: Syrian Women Allowed into Azadi Stadium
The final round of the 2018 World Cup qualifier games between Iran and Syria was held at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. In the hours after tickets were put on sale, buyers were given the option to buy tickets for women but, in the end, no women were able to buy a ticket. On the day of the match, around 20 women gathered outside the stadium gate but the police prevented them from entering. This was happening at the same time that Syrian women carrying Syrian flags were able to enter the stadium freely. After Iranian and foreign media published photographs of Syrian women in the stadium, Iran’s football federation became the focus of a controversy that commanded international attention.
March 1, 2018: Women Arrested While FIFA’s President is in the Stadium
On March 1, the Tehran derby had a special guest: Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, the international football federation. While he was watching, 35 women outside the gates demanding to be let into the stadium to watch the game were beaten and arrested and held for several hours.
October 16, 2018: Hand-Picked Women Fans to Placate FIFA
On October 16, 2018, Iran and Bolivia played a friendly game at Azadi Stadium. To placate FIFA, around 100 women were selected from among the employees of the sports ministry’s security department and the national police to be allowed into Azadi Stadium to watch the game. Also included were members of the Iranian women’s national team and a number of their female coaches and employees of the football federation.
November 10, 2018: A Rush to the Stadium Stands
On November 10, 2018, the Asian Champions League held its final match between Iran’s Persepolis FC and Japan's Kashima Antlers at Azadi Stadium. Prior to the match, it had been announced that only 300 women would be allowed to enter the stadium, but then Leila Soofizadeh, Deputy President of the football federation, managed to bring in a large number of women who had gathered outside the stadium. As these women ran toward the stands to taste a moment of freedom, the spectators rose and applauded them.
August 2019: Arrest of “Freedom Women”
They became known as “Freedom Women” because they frequently gathered outside Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium and tried every imaginable way to get into the stands to watch their favorite teams. To teach them a lesson, the Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agents arrested four of them, including poet and writer Zahra Khoshnavaz, Lili Maleki, Hediyeh Marvesti, and photographer Forough Alayi and sent them to Qarchak Prison in Varamin.
Forough Alayi, the first Iranian woman to be awarded the top prize in the WordPress Photo awards, regularly tackled the subject of women being banned from stadiums. She has documented women’s illegal presence at matches, which earned her awards, but also landed her in jail. The other three were arrested because they had disguised themselves to enter the Stadium.
Under pressure from public opinion and the media, the four were released on bail but the cases against them remained open.
September 19, 2019: The “Blue Girl”
In March 2019, 29-year-old Esteghlal FC fan Sahar Khodayari tried to enter Azadi Stadium to watch a game between her team and the United Arab Emirates team Al Ain as part of the Asian Champions League. She was arrested and sent to Qarchak Prison.
Khodayari was released on bail but when she went to the courthouse to retrieve her mobile phone, which had been taken off her, by chance she heard that she would be sentenced to six months in prison. On September 2, 2019, After learning about her sentence, she set herself on fire outside the Revolutionary Court building in Tehran. After she was taken to Motahari Hospital, doctors announced that she had suffered 90 percent burns on her body.
Many people simple referred to her as the “Blue Girl” because of the color of the dress she was wearing when she set herself on fire. She did not recover and died on September 19. While she was hospitalized, security agents did not allow the reporters to meet with her, saying that her case was being handled as a “security” matter.
Khodayari’s death shocked the sporting world, so much that many international celebrities and clubs weighed in to condemn it and the structural conditions that paved the way for the tragedy.
October 10, 2019: Women Celebrate the National Team’s Victory
On October 10, 2019, during the second round of the World Cup qualifying matches, Iran’s national football team beat Cambodia 14-0 at Azadi Stadium. Waving flags, blowing horns and displaying the team colors of red, green and white, around 4,000 women watched from a special women-only section in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. How did this come about? Pressure from FIFA and the international outrage following the death of the “Blue Girl” forced the Islamic Republic to open the doors of the stadium to women. FIFA had sent a delegation to Tehran to ensure that women were allowed to attend the game.
Women Disguised as Men
Iranian women have repeatedly tried to get into stadiums to watch football matches, especially games involving Iran’s Pro League and the Asian Champions League. One of the best known is Zahra Khoshnavaz. Every time she was successful, she posted a photograph of herself on Instagram a few hours after the game. Khoshnavaz talked to IranWire about the futile attempts that have been made to allow women into stadiums. “Of course it is painful to me,” she said. “I have to open with my teeth this knot that should be opened by fingers. I have to make myself up and wear men’s clothes to go and sit among the crowd — and I don’t even dare to shout because I am afraid. I am afraid that the guy sitting next to me is an agent and they will throw me out.”
In one case, however, she was pleasantly surprised. On October 23, 2018, as she watching a match between Persepolis and Qatar's Al Sadd at Azadi Stadium in disguise, the excitement got too much for her. She could not control herself and suddenly, she shouted. Then she noticed the reaction of the all-male crowd around her. “Those around me found out I was a woman and this changed their behavior. Apparently an agent had heard me and was looking for the source of the shouting. The men around me sprang into action immediately. One of them took off his jacket and draped it across my shoulders. Another put his hat on my head and told me: ‘Don’t look at anybody. Keep your head down.’ Those who were sitting in front of me closed ranks to hide me from agents who might be sitting further down. I had a good makeup but, well, they had become suspicious.”
This article was written by a citizen journalist under a pseudonym.