This week Dariush Mostafavi, head of the Iranian Football Federation’s Appeals Committee, spoke publicly about the issue of Iranian women being turned away from football stadiums in the country. On Wednesday Mostafavi emphasized a 2018 promise reportedly made by the former president, Hassan Rouhani, that women would be allowed into sports venues. He noted that FIFA was more determined than ever to see this happen and twice, said international bodies could no longer be “lied to”.
The Federation’s paralysis on the issue recently led to a World Cup qualifying match with South Korea being held at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium with no spectators at all, on the pretext of Covid-19. The same is now happening at Iran Pro League matches this season. The situation is fast becoming untenable, leading many to wonder: just how much longer can this go on?
On June 18, 2019, FIFA president Gianni Infantino issued a stern rebuke to the then-president of the Iranian Football Federation, Mehdi Taj. In a letter entitled "Ensuring women’s participation in the 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifiers", he wrote that he considered the Iranian side to be in breach of the organization’s charter. Infantino referred explicitly to a recent home match against Syria in which women had been barred from attending Azadi Stadium. Those who tried to get in nonetheless had been detained for hours; one video shared online in the aftermath showed a group of young Iranian women crying as they were forcibly removed by police.
That particular episode had been all the more painful because the group initially thought they would be allowed in. In the run-up, one of them had noticed a “women” section open up on the online ticketing system for the Iran-Syria friendly match. She immediately bought a ticket, but minutes later found the money had been deposited back into her account. The “women” section promptly disappeared from the website.
Together with a group of four others, she decided to attend nonetheless. Azadi Stadium wasn’t crowded that day, and they hoped to watch the game unnoticed from a corner of the stands. But minutes after their arrival at the stadium’s west entrance, they were confronted by police officers who insulted them and told them to get out at once. One of the girls tried to film the obscenities being thrown at them on her cell phone. In response, officers attacked her, laying her out on the ground while one of them put his foot on her chest and took her phone. The other girls tried to intervene, leading to two of them being arrested and three others being beaten up on the spot.
“We are a small group of women, standing on the grass in front of Azadi Stadium’s western gate,” says one of the young women in the video. “We were not doing anything. We weren’t chanting slogans or even talking. We didn’t even have an Iranian flag. But they kicked us. They beat us. They swore at us without us having done anything wrong. This is contrary to what Dr. Rouhani promised us in March 2018; we were assured that real progress would be made soon."
Years of Stalling
Speaking to the media this week, Dariush Mostafavi, head of the Iranian Football Federation’s Appeals Committee and the Federation's former chairman, referred to the same promise by Rouhani. “Half of our country is made up of women,” he said, “and we cannot tell women not to come to the stadium. We cannot lie forever and we must tell the Asian Football Confederation. We are committed to the charter, and FIFA is very determined to bring in the women. Even Infantino himself made the president promise this problem would be solved."
The crucial discussion took place at a meeting between Rouhani and Infantino in Tehran on March 1, 2018. Subsequent coverage by Iranian conservative media did not mention Hassan Rouhani's remarks about women entering stadiums: Tasnim News Agency, for example, only reported Rouhani's request for Iran to host international football matches, as well as his assertion that "FIFA should take care that non-sporting issues do not affect sports".
Instead, it was FIFA that mentioned the commitment in its own account of the talks. “I was promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon,” Infantino later told a press conference. “[Rouhani] told me that in countries such as [Iran], these things take a bit of time.”
Eighteen months later, a young football fan named Sahar Khodayari died in hospital after setting herself on fire in front of a Tehran courthouse. Known as the “Blue Girl” in reference to her wearing the colors of Esteghlal FC, she had initially been arrested in March 2019 when she tried to enter Azadi Stadium to watch her favourite club play the UAE’s Al Ain. She was held in custody for three days, then bailed for 50 million tomans ($1,800) and finally told as she waited to stand trial that she could expect a prison sentence of six months to two years. On leaving the courthouse, she poured gasoline over herself and set herself alight, suffering 90 percent burns.
The death of Blue Girl sparked renewed determination on the part of FIFA and others to see the end of one of the most obvious, mass-scale instances of illegal discrimination in contemporary sports. But come the World Cup qualifiers this year, nothing had changed. On September 7, 2021, Infantino told Shahaboddin Azizi Khadem, the new president of Iran’s Football Federation, that he was waiting to see female spectators at the upcoming match against South Korea.
For a time, it seemed that the ground was being prepared for this to become a reality. But then Hossein Jalali, a member of the Parliamentary Cultural Committee, read out a 1987 fatwa issued by the first Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, barring women from attending stadiums not only in matches but also in league games. As such, the doors remained closed to women under cover of Covid-19.
Regime Insiders Closing Ranks
Hassan Rouhani might have made a promise, albeit without any executive guarantees, to the FIFA president. But his successor appears to have a different approach. During the electoral campaign season in May this year, Ebrahim Raisi was asked what he thought about women being allowed into sports stadiums. What he said was largely incomprehensible and irrelevant, but it gave some clues: “Some people said that women should go to the stadium to watch men's matches. But does that solve the problem for the women? What about women's sports, and their share of the labor market? At the same time, many women in the pandemic teach cooking at home and produce content this way. But the economic benefit goes to the others, which must be corrected."
Teaching cooking at home and going to watch a football match are two different activities. Why Raisi held them up for comparison is anyone’s guess. But clearly, keeping the stadium doors closed to both men and women so as to keep the women out is not a sustainable solution.
No doubt fully aware of this, Dariush Mostafavi added on Wednesday: "We cannot tell a woman who has observed all social and Islamic principles not to come to the stadium. If this does not happen [women being allowed in], we will have to state our case to the Asian Football Confederation, and we will not be able to lie."
Earlier, Iranian media had claimed the Football Federation's Appeals Committee had given a million-dollar guarantee to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that it would strictly implement the AFC’s principles of professional development in Iranian football. If any underhand behavior is detected on the Iranian side, Iran’s national team could be suspended from AFC games. The clock is ticking for the Iranian Football Federation, and by extension the Islamic Republic, to give a good reason to both AFC and FIFA as to why Iranian women are not yet sitting in their rightful place on the bleachers. Whatever is said, as the Federation’s own official has made clear, this situation cannot hold for much longer.