On Thursday, October 10, almost 4000 women entered a stadium in Tehran for the first time after almost four decades to watch a men’s soccer game.
Minutes before starting the game, the Iranian government spokesperson appeared on the state-owned TV with his background showing women at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium declaring that President Rouhani’s government facilitated the historic event. He told reporters that international pressure did not play a role in women being allowed to attend the football game.
However, spokesperson Ali Rabiei failed to mention years of struggles by Iranian women for their right to watch men’s sports, which eventually attracted international attention and pressures on the government.
Although women were banned from entering stadiums shortly after the 1979 revolution in Iran, their significant efforts to get back their right started in 1998 when the Iranian national soccer team advanced to the World Cup for the first time after the revolution.
But authorities continued to resist women’s demand, although the ban was never enacted as a law. It was always enforced by executive orders, supported by conservative clerics in control of the judicial system.
Almost a decade passed and while qualification games for FIFA World Cup in 2006 began Iranian women’s rights activists penned a letter to Tehran Provincial Government demanding the right to enter the stadiums and watch soccer games. The letter was left unanswered.
Authorities continued to ignore the demand and women launched numerous campaigns to obtain their rights. In one campaign, some women chose white scarves as a symbol of peaceful activism and began picketing the stadiums during matches. But like many other civic movements, the white scarves were subjected to a crackdown by the Iranian police and security forces.
The condition got worse for Iranian women rights activists after the widespread crackdown on civic and political activists during the 2009 disputed presidential elections and its aftermath. Some Iranian women have repeatedly tried to enter stadiums dressed up as men. There were reports of arrests by the police.
Giving up on Islamic Republic authorities, Iranian women found a new way to demand their rights: Urging the International Federation of Football Associations (French acronym FIFA) to intercede with the government. In response, the international soccer governing body began pressuring Iranian officials to allow women into the stadiums.
Officials remained silent until September 8, 2019. On that day, an Iranian woman set herself on fire in front of a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Courts protesting a possible jail sentence for violating the Islamic hijab law by trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.
The death of 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari, nicknamed as the “Blue Girl” after the main color of her favorite team, shook the public. Many Iranian and non-Iranian social media users as well as public figures mourned her death and urged FIFA to act.
This time, FIFA which previously warned Iran about a possible suspension from international football games took a firm position. The Islamic Republic’s authorities found themselves under unprecedented domestic and international pressure. Any suspension of international football games could potentially lead to a dangerous protests by devoted football fans.
President Hassan Rouhani’s government tried to control the situation by finally allowing a few thousand women into the Azadi stadium, accepting FIFA’s demand. However, spokesperson Ali Rabiei tried to take every credit for the government in his interview. He tried to neglect years of Iranian women activists’ efforts and international pressures.
Nevertheless, one should not forget that Rouhani’s cabinet members had previously announced they cannot move forward on this case due to pressures by influential Shiite clerics. In 2015, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, then vice president for women and family affairs, told reporters that the government once changed its mind about accepting women’s demand to enter the stadiums “to respect high-ranking clerics. Some top-ranking religious leaders claimed that the presence of women and men at the same time in the stadiums is against Islamic values.
While Mr. Rabiei was giving his interview to the state-owned TV on the historic day of women entering the Azadi Stadium, a few yards away, women were preparing to raise placards with the slogan: “We Won’t Forget You, Blue Girl!”