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'Women Should Not Be In Stadiums' Says 99-Year Old Ayatollah

Thousand of men and women in Tehran's Azadi stadium watch Iran's national football team playing Portugal on June 25.

An ultraconservative clergyman has lambasted President Hassan Rouhani’s government for letting women to enter Tehran’s main sports arena (Azadi stadium) and watch Iranian national football squad's two televised soccer matches against Spain and Portugal.

“It is not glorious to allow women enter an arena for watching soccer games,” 99-year old Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani roared.

Speaking to female seminary scholars, the Qom based Ayatollah insisted, “It is not a glory to let women enter soccer stadiums. Boundaries between men and women should be respected.”

Safi Golpayegani, who is recognized as a “Grand Ayatollah” and “source of emulation” by the Islamic establishment, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to women participating in sports activities.

He has also gone further, insisting “gender segregation in Iran’s universities” should be enforced “at any cost”.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) meeting Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, July 2013
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) meeting Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, July 2013

Seven years ago, when Iranian female athletes participated in Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, Safi Golpayegani lamented, “It’s disgraceful to send women to such games.”

Iran’s discriminatory ban on women attending men’s footbal matches dates to 1981, says Human Rights Watch (HRW), adding, “In 2012, authorities extended the ban to volleyball matches. In response, Iranian women have campaigned and lobbied parliament to reverse the ban. They have even disguised themselves as men to avoid these discriminatory restrictions.

Over the past few years, Iranian women and rights organizations have also tried to reverse the policy through direct appeals to FIFA and the international volleyball federation (FIVB).

Earlier, in an open letter on Friday, June 22, prominent women of Iranian origin including Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Shappi Khorsandi comedian and patron of the Brirish Humanist Association, Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo and legendary singer Googoosh had urged the FIFA to force the Islamic Republic to end the implementation of the discriminatory unwritten law banning Iranian women from entering sports arenas, where male athletes compete with each other.

Iranian football fans in Tehran watching Iran-Spain game on large screens.
Iranian football fans in Tehran watching Iran-Spain game on large screens.

"We call on FIFA to stand on its principles, hold Iran accountable for violating one of FIFA's most fundamental statutes, and demand that the Islamic Republic permanently end the ban on female attendance," said the signatories led by actress, board member of New York based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) and a spokeswoman for Amnesty International USA, Nazanin Boniadi.

Nevertheless, ultraconservative Shi’ite clergy, including the Islamic Republic’s Prosecutor-General, mid ranking cleric Mohammad Jafar Montazeri say letting women watch sports along with men at stadiums is “disgraceful”.

Last Sunday, Montazeri claimed that he had seen videos showing “women without headscarves, dancing and singing” at Azadi (Freedom) stadium.

“What happened at the stadium is so disgraceful that I am ashamed of relating it,” said Montazeri.

The prosecutor-General’s comments were followed by “mild” responses from President Rouhani’s close allies.

According to state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Rouhani’s deputy, Ms. Masoumeh Ebtekar insisted on Thursday, June 28, “Women’s presence at Azadi stadium was completely based on religious principles.”

Tehran’s representative to parliament, Ms. Tayyebeh Seyavoushi, who was present at the stadium along with three other MPs, also tweeted, “We did not see the scenes mentioned by the Prosecutor-General.”

Ms. Seyavoushi added, “It was an occasion for families to get together. We hope, from now on, our girls will not be forced to enter sports arenas, with artificial beards and mustaches, disguised as men.”

Meanwhile, HRW has called for lifting the ban and let Iranian women attend all sports events at the stadiums across the country.

“Iranian authorities have finally taken a long-awaited step of de facto overturning the ban on women attending stadiums in the past two games,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, adding, “This experience shows how shallow the many justifications for keeping women out of the stadiums were, and Iran should ensure that women can freely attend all sporting events across the country from now on.”

The Islamic Republic’s former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the ban lifted in 2006, but the order was not implemented, after the top ayatollahs opposed it.

Rouhani has also repeatedly promised to lift the ban, without delivering, so far.

The ban is still in place, while Article 3 of FIFA’s statute states that “discrimination of any kind… is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”