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Iranian Football Federation's Latest Ploy: Make Stadiums Look 'No Place for Women'

November 26, 2021
Behnam Gholipour
5 min read
Iran's ruling clergy has resisted international pressure to let women into football stadiums for more than three decades
Iran's ruling clergy has resisted international pressure to let women into football stadiums for more than three decades
The latest Pro League match at Azadi Stadium saw online ticket sales closed and female Persepolis fans once again left in the cold
The latest Pro League match at Azadi Stadium saw online ticket sales closed and female Persepolis fans once again left in the cold

The ever-resourceful Football Federation of Iran has unveiled its latest wheeze to block women from joining men inside the country’s football stadiums: stop online ticket sales, form a wall of ticket counters in front of the stadium doors, and finally imply to FIFA that it’s the women themselves that don’t want to attend matches.

This scenario was launched on a trial basis at the match between Esteghlal and Nassaji Mazandaran on November 19, and deployed again at Persepolis v Sanat Naft on Wednesday this week. It’s not clear if the tactic will resurface again at the Tehran Derby: the annual face-off between Esteghlal and Persepolis, scheduled for December 4.


On Friday, November 19, Esteghlal fans were let onto the stands for the first time since the outbreak of coronavirus. Pro League games have been held without spectators since February 23, 2020 even as other types of venues have sporadically opened and closed according to the whims of the Health Ministry. But this Friday was different: some 10,000 blue-clad fans entered Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, an eighth of its capacity, and watched the game from a cordoned-off area.

Two days later, the Iranian Football Federation and the Pro League announced that many times more Persepolis fans could also enter Azadi Stadium for the Sanat Naft match on Wednesday, November 24, “in accordance with health protocols”. Other Pro League games would be kept behind closed doors. The revelation was accompanied by the addresses for two websites where fans could – supposedly – buy tickets online.

But neither site was updated. As had been the case at the Esteghlal match, on the eve of the game the Pro League advised fans to make their way straight to both the east and west doors of Azadi Stadium to buy their tickets on the day. This meant in-person ticket sellers, flanked by police, could easily refuse ticket sales to women then and there instead, without the risk of an incriminating paper trail.

In-person ticket sales make it easier for the Football Federation to hide from FIFA scrutiny. For months Tehran has been under renewed pressure to either let women into matches or face suspension. By turning women away at the gates, the Federation can publicly claim they didn’t want to be there in the first place.

Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting also has a role to play. For a few minutes during the match between Persepolis and Sanat Naft, the atmosphere at Azadi Stadium grew tense. Persepolis striker Mehdi Abdi sent the ball straight toward the Sanat Naft goal with a strong kick in the 67th minute. It struck the post, crossed a few inches past the goal line, then came back out. The referee did not acknowledge the goal, angering fans; a sizeable number of the 30,000 present started chanting against the referee.  

Usually in such circumstances the IRIB would either interrupt the broadcast or lower the volume of the audio being recorded from the stands. This time, the commentator continued to speak – but in fragmentary sentences, allowing the crowd’s obscenities to become all the more audible. This has been read by many as a deliberate attempt to show the stadium atmosphere was not appropriate for women and families.

Flip-Flopping on Online Ticket Sales

The new ploy is lower-risk than some others used in the past – but only so long as enforcers are not caught in the act. In a memorable episode on June 18, 2019, a group of women were filmed being beaten up and arrested by police outside Azadi Stadium after they tried to get into a match between the Iranian and Syrian national teams.

As one of the women later related, she had seen a “women” section open up on the online ticketing system and instantly bought one, only to find the money deposited back into her account minutes later. The “women” section then disappeared from the website. The group had tried to go along regardless, and ended up being beaten and detained for hours.

Women’s entry into stadiums was ruled out in by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1987, in remarks that were widely construed as a fatwa. The ruling clergy has refused to budge on the issue ever since. Around the time the video of the girls at Azadi Stadium was published, so too was a speech by hardline cleric Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday Imam of Mashhad and Ali Khamenei’s representative in Razavi Khorasan. Calling the idea of women on the stands “vulgar”, he claimed: “Women are respected and women's dignity should be kept away from the pollution of the stadium!"

It was precisely this dated view that the IRIB sought to present by amplifying the noise of angry male fans at the Persepolis match on Wednesday. In the aftermath Soheil Mehdi, head of the Persian Gulf Pro League, went back on a previous claim that Esteghlal and Persepolis fans could come to Azadi “on a trial basis” for the Tehran Derby next Saturday. Now, just a day later, he’s said the stadium could remain closed.

Related coverage:

Caught Between FIFA and a Fatwa, Iran's Football Bosses Keep Pro League Matches Closed

'We Can't Lie Forever': Football Federation in a Corner Over Women in Stadiums

40 Years Locked Outside Stadiums: A Chronology

Police Beat and Arrest Women outside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium

As Football Fans Return to Stadiums, FIFA Demands Iran Welcome Women

Iran Promises FIFA Women Will be Allowed in Stadiums (Again)

FIFA’s Last Ultimatum to Iran: Open Stadium Doors to Women

Women Arrested as Authorities Step up CCTV Surveillance at Azadi Stadium

Female Poet Sneaks into Stadium for Third Time

Woman Who Set Herself on Fire Dies

Iran Jails Female Football Fans

Ayatollah Gives Thumbs Down to Women in Stadiums


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