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Iran just let women attend a football game for the first time in years – but don’t celebrate yet

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Emily Reynolds
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Iran’s decision to release 3,500 World Cup tickets to women has been met with severe scepticism. 

As a headline, it looks good: Iran decides women can attend football matches for the first time in decades, releasing 3,500 tickets for women to a World Cup game. But scratch beneath the surface, and things are not quite so rosy.

Only 3,500 places in a nearly 80,000 seater stadium for the Iran vs. Cambodia match were available, leading human rights organisation Amnesty International to describe the ticket release as a “cynical publicity stunt”. 

Women have not been able to attend football games since 1981, after the country’s 1979 Revolution, but there has been increasing pressure from human rights organisations and FIFA itself to reverse the ban. 

“There can be no stopping or turning back now,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said in a statement after the tickets were released. “History teaches us that progress comes in stages, and this is just the beginning of a journey.”

In the intervening years, hundreds of women have been arrested for attempting to gain entry to stadiums, including at least 40 in the last two years alone. Many have also been prosecuted.

And in September 2019, an Iranian woman who had been arrested for an attempt to enter a stadium disguised as a man died after she set herself on fire whilst awaiting trial. 

Sahar Khodayari – also known as ‘blue girl’ because of her team’s colours – was jailed for three days before being released on bail. After her trial was postponed, she set herself alight in front of Tehran’s most prominent courthouse. Though women entering stadiums is not banned by law, it is “ruthlessly enforced by authorities” according to Human Rights Watch. Khodayari had been charged with “improperly wearing hijab” after she disguised herself as a man.

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Women have been fighting for decades, so it should seem like the decision to allow women into today’s match is a victory. But given the small percentage of tickets allocated, it’s actually only a token gesture.

Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director Philip Luther said Iran had decided to “allow a token number of women into the stadium” in what is a “cynical publicity stunt by the authorities intended to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Sahar Khodayari’s tragic death”.

He continued: “Anything short of a full reversal of the ban on women accessing all football stadiums is an insult to Sahar Khodayari’s memory and an affront to the rights of all the women of Iran who have been courageously campaigning for the ban to be lifted. The Iranian authorities should lift all restrictions on women attending football matches, including domestic league games, across the country.”

Luther also argued that the international community, including FIFA, should take responsibility for ensuring women can freely attend matches. 

“FIFA has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout its operations, and the power under its statutes to take definitive and urgent action to address a situation which it has allowed to continue for far too long,” he said. 

When steps like this are taken, it’s easy to celebrate – on the surface, things look like they’re progressing. But, as Luther explains, it’s not as simple as this – and we should always be on our guard against superficial, tokenistic displays of equality. 

Image: Unsplash

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Emily Reynolds

Emily Reynolds is a journalist and author based in London. Her first book, A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, came out in February 2017 with Hodder & Stoughton. She is currently working on her second.  

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