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Women In The Azadi Stadium - A Milestone For Gender Relations In Iran?

Iranian football fans in Iran watching Iran Spain game via screen

Sports are once again at the forefront of gender issues in Iran, highlighting the complicated position of women in Iranian society and sports. As part of support for the national soccer team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Iranian families were allowed to watch matches at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. Although Azadi Stadium had previously hosted numerous events -- namely the 1998 World Cup qualifier between Australia and Iran -- this year saw an equally important milestone: After almost four decades of being barred from entry, women were allowed into the stadium to support the national team.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women in Iran were forbidden to attend sports events at public stadiums. The sweeping fundamentalist changes following the revolution sought to reinforce gender segregation and moral conduct. Being open to both men and women, public stadiums and large sports events were quickly targeted by the religious regime.

While female Iranian athletes witnessed significant change with the presence of Lida Fariman at the shooting competitions at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, women were still barred from attending public events. Although women were not allowed to enter stadiums during the 2010 World Cup, they were allowed to gather on squares and other public areas to watch. The authorities quickly took note, and the ban was extended to other sports such as volleyball and any mixed-gender public areas before the 2012 EURO Cup.

The popularity of social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter proved essential in providing a space for women to speak out against this ban. The activists behind the Twitter account OpenStadiums began speaking out in 2013 and garnered both domestic and Western attention. While the Iranian government has officially forbidden Twitter, OpenStadiums have consistently carried on with their activism.

An equally notable moment for female activism surrounding the stadium ban was the presence of Darya Safai, a Belgian-Iranian activist, at the Summer Olympics in Rio in 2016. Safai’s activism hails back to the violently suppressed student protests of 1999 that resulted in her flight to Belgium, where she now resides. As part of her activism, Safai founded the group Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums, which seeks to highlight the daily discriminations faced by Iranian women. By protesting at the Iran-Egypt men’s volleyball match with a sign carrying the group’s name, Safai attracted attention from both Western media and Olympic officials.

The discourse surrounding women’s presence at men’s sports events has been long-running, but the past few years have seen significant support by male voices in the mainstream Iranian society such as that of President Hassan Rouhani himself. An equally helpful voice was Ali Karimi, the former Iranian Bayern Munich player, who clamored for the loosening of such rules in 2017, calling on Rouhani to lift the ban.

Yet the Iranian authorities only loosened their stance on women attending men’s sports events this year, allowing them to attend the first round of the qualifier match of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 and Iran’s matches in the FIFA World Cup.

It would be a mistake to think the ban is completely lifted, and the particular language is telling. Rather than simply allowing women to enter stadiums, the regime allowed “families” to watch soccer in public spaces. Instead of marking a change for women at sports events, the lifting of the ban signifies the underlying values proposed by the regime. In other words, women were allowed to join their male guardians as family members rather than as individuals.

The relaxing of the ban didn’t escape the notice of fundamentalist figures in Iranian society. Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani, the 99-year-old grand ayatollah and member of the Guardian Council, criticized Rouhani for letting Iranian women into stadiums. “It is not glorious to allow women enter an arena for watching soccer games,” Golpayegani said in a speech to female seminary scholars.

The more lenient approach of the authorities toward the attendance of women during the World Cup can also be seen as a bid to avoid international pressure. Indeed, while the World Cup attracted significant international press coverage, the domestic Persian Gulf Pro League does not. According to a recent tweet by OpenStadiums, women are once again barred from entering stadiums, and there seems to be little dialogue between the authorities and women on the matter.

While the loosening of the ban in 2018 perhaps marks a change in the attitudes of the regime toward female attendance at larger sports events, the language used by public figures shows there is little change in overall society.