While Iran is preparing itself for the second batch of Washington's sanctions against Tehran, the country's prosecutor-general has triggered a new heated debate over the question of women being allowed to attend stadiums to watch soccer matches.
The mid-ranking cleric and prosecutor has warned that his offices would not tolerate women entering sports arenas, watching “half-naked” soccer players competing against each other.
Women watching footballers "leads to sin," Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, speaking in the city of Qazvin, said on October 14. "I object to the presence of women in Azadi Stadium yesterday. We are a Muslim state, we are Muslims. We will deal with any official who wants to allow women inside sports venues under any pretext."
State-run Mehr News Agency (MNA) quoted Montazeri as stressing, "When a woman enters a stadium and sees half-naked men in sports jerseys, it will lead to sinful acts."
Moreover, Montazeri cautioned, "If repeated, I will order the Tehran prosecutor-general to step in [and punish the culprits]."
Montazeri's comments triggered a backlash, even from figures affiliated with his own conservative camp.
The day before, in a warmup friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia in Tehran, a strictly limited number of handpicked women were allowed to enter the stadium and cheer their national side.
Apparently, under pressure from the International Football Association (FIFA), Iranian authorities allowed nearly 100 women, most of them soccer players and close relatives of the footballers playing against Bolivia, to enter the venue.
Local news outlets described these female spectators as "special ladies."
Nevertheless, many ordinary female soccer fans were stopped at the gates and prevented from entering the arena.
The women were ushered to a special secluded section, surrounded by security guards.
The match was watched, flags were waved, pictures were taken, and everything wrapped up smoothly, local news outlets reported, noting, "Yet, the prosecutor still insists that it should never happen again."
However, a number of conservative allies of the prosecutor immediately begged to differ with his comments. An Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) general and former head of Iran's monopolized state-run Radio and TV network, Izzatollah Zarghami, tweeted, "Do not add salt to injury for women who do not have proper entertainment---Is there less sinful and anti-Shari'a behavior inside the prisons than in the sports arenas?"
Pro-reform daily Etemad also reflected the prosecutor and the deputy speaker of parliament, Ali Motahari, facing each other, in its October 18 issue.
Tehran's outspoken MP, Motahari, believes that allowing women to watch swimming and wrestling contests as well as men's basketball and volleyball matches is against Shari'a law but dismisses the prosecutor's comments on soccer, arguing, "It seems that watching soccer for women does not contradict the law."
Echoing Motahari's remark, daily Etemad cited a Qom Shi'a Seminary lecturer, Mohsen Gharavian, as saying, "Based on Twelver-Imam Shi'a jurisprudence, women should be allowed to attend soccer matches."
The spectators gather in an arena solely to encourage the players, giving them more incentive, and watch the game. Sports arenas are not a place for committing sins, Gharavian noted.
The prosecutor's comments were dismissed on social media and faced criticism under different hashtags, including #Half Naked prosecutor.
Responding to a report filed by his cabinet’s sports minister last July, President Hassan Rouhani had suggested women’s access to Tehran’s main stadium, Azadi, should continue.
The instruction was immediately issued after women were allowed to watch a World Cup match between Iran and Spain on a big screen at Azadi Stadium.
“For the very first time since the Islamic Revolution , families attended Azadi Stadium to watch the matches of the Iranian national football team with their opponents [Spain] at the Russia World Cup 2018 on the big screens, while observing all Islamic protocols,” Sports and Youth Affairs Minister Masoud Soltanifar had earlier reported to Rouhani.
According to Soltanifar’s report, “The event not only garnered massive support from football fans, but it also created a joyful and lively atmosphere among the youth and families and received good feedback on social media from inside and outside the country.”
Furthermore, FIFA President Gianni Infantino had earlier said on March 2 that he had been told by Rouhani of plans to allow Iranian women to attend football matches in the country “soon.”
A day after meeting with Rouhani in Tehran, Infantino told reporters at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, “I was promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon. President Rouhani told me that in countries such as (Iran), these things take a bit of time.”