Iran allows women to attend 1st soccer match since 1981
One woman said she wanted to hug her ticket and cry. Another clasped both hands over her mouth at her first glimpse of the field’s lush green turf. Others painted flags on their cheeks and used their cellphones to document their presence.
When Iran’s national soccer team took the field Thursday at Tehran’s Azadi stadium for an otherwise humdrum World Cup qualifier, the outsize interest in the game was not in the action on the field but on who was seated in the stands.
For the first time in almost four decades, women were allowed to buy tickets and attend a match in Iran.
“Finally,” one fan said, “the gates are open to us.”
Women started gathering at the stadium several hours before the game, and many were already in their seats two hours before kickoff. Others arrived without tickets — several warnings were issued over loudspeakers telling ticketless spectators stranded outside that they would not be able to gain entry — after authorities limited the amount of seats available to women to a few thousand.
That made for a strange scene inside the stadium, with the one corner of the stands reserved for women packed to capacity while almost the entirety of the rest of the 78,000-seat arena remained largely empty. So new was the experience for many of the women that a small group of their colleagues was tasked with demonstrating to those in attendance — a mix of fans in Iranian colors and traditional chadors — how to chant.
The game between Iran and Cambodia would typically merit little interest as another mismatch between a regional heavyweight and an also-ran in an early qualifier for the 2022 World Cup. Iran needed only five minutes to open the scoring — celebrating only yards from the thousands of delighted women in the stands — and led by 7-0 at halftime. It ended, 14-0.
But despite its lopsided nature, the game was among the most consequential sporting events to be played in years, as it marked the end of a prohibition that had been bitterly opposed. The decision to allow women to watch came only one month after a soccer fan died after setting herself on fire in protest of a six-month prison sentence for attending a club game this year.
The ban itself dates from 1981, introduced by hard-line conservatives, and is an unwritten rule that has denied women access to stadiums since then. In recent years, it has been extended to volleyball and basketball as the popularity of those sports has grown.
Iranian women and girls have long tried to overturn — or evade — the ban by organizing weekly protests or disguising themselves as men to slip inside stadiums. While government and soccer officials were unmoved, the activism gradually grabbed the attention of international rights groups and the Iranian public. It was also the subject of a 2006 movie, “Offside,” by famed Iranian director Jafar Panahi.
But it was the September death of the woman who set herself ablaze, Sahar Khodayari, that had the biggest impact. The news of her death at age 29 spread widely online with the help of the hashtag #bluegirl — a reference to the color of the Tehran club she supported, Esteghlal.