Under pressure from FIFA, yesterday the Iranian Football Federation partially relented on its decades-old policy of excluding Iranian women from football stadiums. A small number of female fans were allowed into Azadi Stadium to watch the match between Esteghlal and Mes Kerman, which ended with a 1-0 victory for Esteghlal.
On the eve of the World Cup, Mirshad Majedi, the Federation’s acting head, was in a bind. Something had to be done to placate FIFA on the sex discrimination issue, or Iran risked suspension ahead of the main event. He initially asked Persepolis FC to make arrangements for women to attend Pro League games, but the club was reportedly “not ready” to do so. So he turned to Mostafa Ajorlou, the CEO of Esteghlal.
IranWire revealed earlier this week how Ajorlou, an IRGC commander, had been placed squarely in charge of vetting and pre-approving female fans to attend Thursday’s match. This was to be done by linking their national ID numbers to the online ticketing system. In the end, around 2,000 women were there on the bleachers on Thursday, of course amply picked up by the state TV cameras.
But there was, inevitably, more to it than that. In this report, we’ll go through what is so far known about the events of the past week and a half, from the moment the tickets went on sale until the final whistle.
If at First You Don’t Succeed
Last week Esteghlal’s CEO Mostafa Ajorlou had generously proposed to Majedi that a full 500 women be pre-approved to attend Azadi Stadium. Their ID codes, he said, could be registered on the ticket sales website, allowing them to purchase a ticket where other women would be blocked.
IranWire published an exclusive report on this affair in Persian on Sunday, August 21 (and in English translation on the Monday). Then on August 23, the Ministry of Sports rejected Ajorlou’s proposal out of hand. Instead it was decided to open the ticket sales system for a very limited window this week: enough time for some, but not many, women to gain access.
In the afternoon of Wednesday, August 24, the women’s section of the website was activated for just 15 minutes. Female fans of Esteghlal in particular, who had been informed for several days that they might stand a chance at a seat, had waited for this moment and chain-refreshed the page for hours on end.
In the end, in the course of those 15 minutes, the website’s own records indicate that 1,000 women managed to buy a ticket. On the day, however, 2,000 were present on the stands. This indicates that though Ajorlou’s initial plan failed, around 1,000 women were either selected or pre-approved for entry, and/or did not purchase a ticket in the normal way.
A Black Market at the Gates
At 4pm on Thursday, the doors of Azadi Stadium’s parking lot number 21 opened for the women who had managed to get tickets. Of those waiting at the gates, the makeup was decidedly mixed. Those lucky enough to have secured a ticket online were present alongside others who had been issued one by Esteghlal FC, and a third group that said they had bought tickets off the books earlier in the day for 200,000 to 350,000 tomans [$8-$12] right there at the gates.
Arrival of the Pre-Approved Women
A lady on the east side of the stadium, eyewitnesses told IranWire, kept repeating the same sentences over and over into a loudspeaker. Welcoming the women, she asked them to enter the stadium with tickets in hand, and if they did not have tickets, not to stop in front of the doors. She also endlessly called for women to “observe the Islamic hijab”.
By 6.30pm almost all those who bought tickets had got onto the stands. About 30 who hadn’t managed to do so were left sitting outside the gate, still hoping to find a way to get in somehow. They then saw the unmistakeable bus belonging to Team Melli, Iran’s national football team, approaching parking lot number 21.
Inside the bus were the players of the national youth team, dressed in their red kit, and the team's technical staff. Another bus pulled up behind them. The doors opened, and a large group of women disembarked, crossed the parking lot and walked straight into the stadium without showing a ticket.
These women are thought to have been selected individuals from the Esteghlal Fan Association or close to Esteghlal’s management. Elsewhere before kick-off, another woman tried to get into the stadium and was blocked; Parviz Boroumand, a former goalkeeper for Esteghlal and now an official at Azadi Stadium, intervened personally to let her in. Those without such ties remained outside.
The Final Hustle
The match was due to begin at 7pm. Police addressed the women still milling around outside through loudspeakers: "Ladies! Under no circumstances are you allowed to enter without a ticket. Respect your hijab and disperse from behind the door.” This, too, was repeated several times over.
Female officers approached the women left outside and tried to guide them away with their hands. One of them resisted, saying the officers were not allowed to touch them. Telling the others to stay put, she emphasized loudly that if they left as instructed, they would not stand a chance of watching the game.
A male officer then grew enervated and shouted at her: “Get away from the front door! Go hang from those trees if you want, but don't stay here! You are not allowed in."
As the argument escalated, a female agent pointed at the ticket touts still hanging around the gates. “They’re selling tickets over there,” she said. “Go buy a ticket so you can get in."
There was consternation in the group. A young woman with a blue Esteghlal flag wrapped around her demanded to know: “Are you trying to get us out of here with this trick?"
Then, however, a man approached them from behind. “I’ve got a few tickets,” he announced. “Anyone want them?” The price was given at 350,000 and repeated several times over, in front of the officers. A woman from Dezful complained that she had bought one from him earlier for 250,000; at the gate, she said, she had been told it was “not valid”.
This Time, Victory
It was 8pm. After a great deal of conferring between officials, the handful of women without tickets – or who had been sold fake ones – were belatedly allowed into the stadium to watch the game. They were lined up and had their national ID cards and belongings checked on entry.
After they passed through the tunnel, one woman from the about 30-strong group grasped the railings and stared at the pitch with tears streaming down her face. Another, a young Esteghlal fan with blue lipstick on, said in a quavering voice: “I can’t believe my dream came true.”
The game ended 90 minutes later in victory for Esteghlal. After the final whistle, the players walked across to the women’s stands and greeted their female fans. The whole of the stadium was on its feet, applauding a glorious moment – one that should never have taken 40 years, or so much heartache, to accomplish.