Women attend live football match after decades

A low-interest football match turned into a historical moment last Thursday in Tehran, Iran. The FIFA World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia, in which the hosts had by default a huge advantage, was the first match in Iranian soil attended live by women in nearly 40 years!

Emotions were really strong. Outside the huge “Azadi” stadium in Tehran you could see women hugging their tickets and cry or burst into tears when watching the field for the first time. As it was a match without any agony for the winner, the most interesting thing is who was seated in the stands.

There have been only 3.500 seats available for women in an well-labeled area, protected by fences and a lot of empty seats from the other stands, who were to be filled by men. Unfortunately for them, only 2.000 of them got to the stadium, so were actually outnumbered by females! The 78,000-seat arena remained empty.

Iran needed only five minutes to open the scoring and eventually they crashed their low-leveled opponents by a huge score of 14-0. After all, the Iranian players shouldn’t be so motivated to score one after another, but they later admitted that they wanted to give women a spectacle to remember.

This was a huge step to normality from the Iranian government. But not without a martyr. 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. Sahar Khodayari, an 29-year-old woman, was trying to get to the same stadium in order to watch her club she supported, Esteghlal Tehran, when she was arrested by the police. She went viral with the help of the hashtag #bluegirl, as she was dressed with Esteghlal’s blue color.

The ban dates from 1981, introduced by hard-line conservatives, although there’s no written rule which denied women access to stadiums since then.Iranian women and girls have long tried to overturn the ban. Apart from organizing weekly protests, some of them made a dangerous step beyond, disguising themselves as men. The activism gradually grabbed the attention of international rights groups and the Iranian public. Jafar Panahi, one of the most famous Iranian film directors, was inspired by this to his film, titled “Offside”.

Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, said the Iranian authorities had assured him that women would be allowed to attend international matches, beginning with the World Cup qualifier against Cambodia. In a speech at a women’s soccer conference in Milan in September Infantino told delegates that his organization could no longer wait.

But even as women gained access to the game, activists noted that there’s no assurance that women would be allowed to attend future domestic matches. They also pointed out that Iranian officials had placed an extremely low limit on how many women could watch live a football match. But the first step, a huge one taking into consideration the circumstances, has been done.

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