When Iran beat favourite South Korea this week in a 2014 World Cup qualifier, it was not the only battle being fought in Tehran’s Azadi stadium. So was the fight for the right of women to attend soccer matches in the Islamic Republic.
Fatma Iktasari and Shabnam Kazimi, dressed in the men’s clothes they wore to disguise themselves and illegally enter the stadium to watch the match, showed the victory sign in a picture published on an Iranian blog after the match. They were posing together with male friends and an Iranian flag.
A poem accompanying the picture read:
Dream one day of a workshop with the kids in the ‘freedom’ gym
The name ‘Iran’ did not vanish until the moment of victory and yelling
The days of Good Hope to India
My people even a little bit happy, happiness experienced once again
I was glad that we were always on their side.”
The two women’s act of defiance like an earlier apparent willingness by the Iranian soccer federation to allow women into stadium for Asian Football Confederation (AFC) championship matches this summer sparked significant debate on Iranian social media networks with many participants praising the two women’s courage.
Their protest highlighted the schizophrenic conditions of women’s soccer in the Islamic republic where women, properly dressed in line with Islamic precepts, are allowed to play soccer in front of all-women audiences but are banned from entering an all-men stadium as spectators.
The protest also revived an effort in the middle of the last decade by women soccer fans to defy the ban by dressing up as men. The campaign was depicted in Offside by filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is currently serving a six year jail sentence for “creating propaganda against the Iranian republic.” Mr. Panahi, a key figure in Iran's cinematic New Wave movement, was further banned from film making, travel and speaking to the media for a period of 20 years.
Offside described the fictionalized arrest by police of six young women and girls who smuggled themselves dressed as men into Tehran's stadium to watch Iran's national team play Bahrain. A more recent movie, Shirin Was A Canary, recounts the tale of a girl who is expelled from school for her love of soccer
The campaign waged albeit by a small group of women prompted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to lift the ban in 2006 in a move that was overruled in an early public disagreement between the two men.
Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani argued at the time that "women looking at a man's body even if not for the sake of gratification is inappropriate.”
Some sources close to the Iranian government believe however that Mr. Khamenei may as yet relent on the issue of women’s attendance at soccer matches in advance of next year’s presidential election. “Given the economic situation, Khamenei needs to give social groups something,” one source said.
Solmaz Sharif, the founder of Shirzanan, an on-line Farsi-language women’s sports website created after she was refused a license to establish a magazine, highlighted in a recent commentary in The Huffington Post the inherent contradictions in Iranian policy after the women’s volleyball team was allowed to compete in front of mixed gender audience at the London Olympics.
“Although the Iranian government has permitted some women's teams to participate in international competitions, it greatly restricts their participation in domestic games. For instance, no men are allowed to watch women's games in Iran. This raises a few questions about the intentions of Iranian sporting officials: If it is "Islamic enough" for women to play in front of global audiences, then why they can't play in Iran? And such international participation doesn't meet Islamic requirements, did the Iranian government merely agree with it to avoid international pressure?” Ms. Sharif wrote.
Hopes were dashed this summer when contrary to expectation the AFC failed to impose its standards by insisting that women would be allowed into the stadium to watch AFC Under-16 Championship matches that were being played in Iran.
The hopes were sparked when AFC Director of National Team competition Shin Mangal was quoted by Shiite news agency Shafaqna as saying that "so far as AFC is concerned, there should be no sex discrimination regarding the presence of men and women at stadiums."
The AFC said it had received assurances from Ali Kaffashian, the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation (IRIFF) that it would comply with AFC regulations. The AFC quoted Mr. Kaffashian as saying at the drawing of the groups for the tournament that the IRIFF is “fully ready to follow all the requirements and instructions from AFC.”
The Iranian soccer boss repeated his position in remarks to Iranian reformist newspaper Sharq. In an editorial the newspaper said "the youth championships could create a great change in Iranian football. They are an excellent opportunity."
An estimated 1,000 women in a rare instance were allowed last year into the Azadi stadium to commemorate the death of Nasser Hejazi, an internationally acclaimed defender who became in his last days an outspoken critic of Mr. Ahmadinejad’s economic policy.
The ceremony turned into an anti-Ahmadinejad protest with the crowds shouting “Hejazi, you spoke in the name of the people” “Goodbye Hejazi, today the brave are mourning.”
In late 1997 in Tehran, some 5,000 women stormed the stadium in protest the ban on women to celebrate revolutionary Iran’s first ever qualification for the World Cup finals. The protest erupted barely a month after the election of Mohammed Khatami as president at a time of anticipated liberalization. Men and women danced in the streets together to blacklisted music and sang nationalist songs as they did six months later when Iran defeated the United States.
“In terms of freedom of expression, soccer stadiums are nearly as important as the Internet in Iran now. The protest is more secure there because the police can't arrest thousands of people at once. State television broadcasts many matches live and the people use it as a stage for resistance. They're showing banners to the cameras and chanting protest songs which is why some games are broadcast without sound now,” says an Iranian sports journalist.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog,The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.