On Friday, June 13, dozens of Iranian girls and women stood outside the closed gates of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. All they wanted was the chance to cheer on Iran's volleyball team in its game against Brazil. But, because they are women, they were banned from attending.
When I tell one of my American friends about this, she looks at me with surprise and says, “you try so hard for such modest demands.” Looking at a photograph of women with faint smiles standing outside the closed gates of the stadium, she adds, “What a sad picture this is!”. I confess that her words make me so sad that I can’t bear to tell her that it’s only Iranian women that were barred from the stadium. Brazilian women were able to sit comfortably next to men, cheering on their team.
New restrictions were recently put in place to ensure women and men did not watch sporting events together, even televised ones. Cinemas had planned to screen this year’s World Cup games, but, before the competition started, the commander of Iran's Security Forces, General Ahmadi Moghadam, announced that women and men would not be allowed to watch football matches together. Games could only be shown if the cinema arranged for women to watch in one one theater and men in another. Most cinemas decided not to pursue the plan.
Then, a couple of days before the World Cup games started on June 12, authorities announced that football matches could not be shown in restaurants and coffee shops either. The president of the Coffee Shop Owners Union told ISNA news agency that union members had been told to “either turn the TV off or switch to a channel that is not broadcasting the games.”
In an interview with IranWire, Sara, one of those who protested outside the closed gates at Azadi Stadium, said, “I don’t know exactly how many of us were there. Azadi Stadium has many gates, and there were 30 to 50 women outside each. Some wore chadors and some had manteaux on. Some were in full hejab and some were wearing the required headscarf, but we all had one demand—to enter the stadium to cheer on the Iranian national volleyball team."
A History of Banning Women and the White Headscarves Campaign
Banning women from sports stadiums began during the 1979 revolution. Under the Islamic Republic, women have rarely been allowed to attend football games, but for a time they were allowed to be spectators at other matches, including volleyball and basketball. Now, it seems, they are once again banned from watching these sports too.
Towards the end of 1990s women rights activists began defending the right of women to enter stadiums and launched the “White Headscarves” campaign. Women wearing white headscarves gathered in front of stadium gates to protest, many of them brandishing the slogan “Women's Rights=Only Half the Freedom.” During the 2006 World Cup qualifying games, when Iran played Qatar, the whitescarved women descended on Azadi Stadium. And this time the gates were open. Women, as well as prominent Iranian figures like the then president Mohammad Khatami, looked on as Iran qualified for the World Cup.
On the same day famous filmmaker Jafar Panahi was busy filming Offside, his remarkable film about female football fans in Iran, some of them so determined to attend football matches that they dressed as boys to gain entrance.
But after the match against Qatar, women were not allowed back into the Azadi Stadium, or at any football games.
In early 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wrote a letter to the head of the Iranian Physical Education Organization, asking for women to be allowed into stadiums. The letter prompted a variety of reactions from authorities, MPs and foreign news agencies. Influential clerics from the holy city of Qom opposed and blocked the move and Ahmadinejad gave in. At the time, Ahmad Khatami, a senior ayatollah and hardliner substitute Friday prayer leader, said the decision not to allow women in stadiums stemmed from a need to protect women's chastity and promote wearing hejab as central to this. If women attend games, he said, there could be no guarantees that chastity could be preserved. Some suggested then that cinemas should not be allowed to screen football games.
Shortly after, security forces declared that screening football matches in cinemas was off limits too.
New Bans, New Protests
Sometimes the moves to ban are subtle: the Iranian Volleyball Federation had said nothing about women spectators not being allowed in to stadiums. But once tickets went on sale for top league matches, the news was out: women would not be allowed to attend. Fans buying tickets online were asked to provide national identification numbers as part of the purchasing process. If an ID number was identified as belonging to a woman, online customers encountered the on-screen message “women cannot enter the stadium” and their application to purchase tickets was rejected.
Yet many women found ways to buy tickets anyway, according to Sara. They used the ID numbers of their husbands, brothers and fathers. “Some of them got tickets through the black market,” she says. But when they arrived, the stadium’s security official explicitly said that women were not allowed in.”
Women asked security guards at the stadiums why they were banned. “They gave an interesting reason,” says Sara. “They said the last time that women came to the stadium they got over-excited, but since they were women [security staff] could not restrain them.” But a woman who heard this explanation apparently said in response, “We have been attacked by male security agents many times. We have experienced their fists and their kicks in the streets. If they don’t want to beat women in the stadium, then they should hire female security guards.’”
Before the games, the head of the Iranian Volleyball Federation told the ILNA news agency that the federation believed that “volleyball is a family game” and they could not accept the decision that women were banned from attending.” The organization has warned Iran about this issue before, stating that if the problem continued, the Iranian National Team could be eliminated from the World Games.
The argument between the security guard and the women continued, and was still going on when Brazilian women arrived in vans, ready to support their team. The women entered the stadium without any problems.
Sahar, another protester, says, “This was perhaps the most humiliating part of it. When we asked why these ladies were able to enter the stadium if women are banned from entry, the security guard answered that it was because they had brought their passports. We answered back: ‘well, we have our passports, too’”. According to Sahar, the guard replied that it was different, because these women held Brazilian passports.
Sara said next time they’ll bring their passports and see what security staff say then. They intend to buy tickets for the next game even if they are prevented from entering again. “We knew from the get-go that we could spend the whole game in front of closed doors,” says Sara. But she says it’s important to make their voices heard: “It’s not a big price to pay and we must protect our most basic rights,” she says.
Two women in chadors insisted on meeting the arena’s security chief, saying they were greatly insulted. For Sara and other demonstrators, it was important that the situation did not become too confrontational. “To relieve the tension,” she said, “We decided to disperse. We did not want to do anything to hurt the volleyball team. We agreed that if the arguments lead to clashes and the news got out, it would cost the team and, God forbid, they might be eliminated.”
It’s a tough balancing act: the last thing women fans—and male fans who want to watch sports with their female family members or friends—is to have a negative impact on the teams they support. But cheering for a favorite team is quickly joining other rights under threat in Iran. And many fans may feel a compulsion to add their voice to the crowd shouting out for these rights to be protected.