As the World Cup comes to an end, will stadiums open to women in Iran?

by Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei | Activist
Thursday, 12 July 2018 18:04 GMT

Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei holds her banner protesting Iran’s ban on women attending football games at a match between Iran and Portugal at the World Cup in Saransk, Russia, July 25, 2018. Photo courtesy: Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Like many fans from around the world, I went to Russia to see my national team play in the World Cup. But Iranian women are not like other fans. For the past 38 years, Iranian women have not been allowed into our stadiums to watch football, the world’s and our nation’s most popular sport.

The original reason for Iran enacting the ban was never recorded and is still unknown. It is not written as law, yet it has been upheld without question—largely because there has been no pressure from the sports federations who hold tournaments in Iran to overturn it. In 2005, Iranian director Jafar Panahi made the movie “Offside” and “The White Scarves” activist group began raising global awareness about the issue.

Iranian women are highly educated, opinionated and engaged in social activities that include sports participation; the Iranian women’s national futsal team has placed first in the past two Asian Cup championships. Yet Iran is the only country that excludes its women as spectators and denies the basic human right to public assembly.

Over the past few years, a groundswell of public opposition to the stadium ban has developed. Women’s rights activists used social media to amplify their grievances and garner support from regular citizens including Iranian men.

Another reason is that the Iranian men’s national football team has improved and become more competitive over the past decade, resulting in both a growing fan base and deeper national pride among all Iranians—men and women alike. Iranians view their national team as representative of themselves, but the stadium ban creates a barrier to this connection between women and our national identity.

All demands and pressure from activists and women and girls who are eager to watch sports have remained unanswered. Authorities claim that the ban “is to protect women from an environment which is not appropriate for them due to vulgar and profane language” by men in the stadiums.

In my view, having women in stadiums can only improve the environment.

Since stadiums in Iran have been a one-gender environment for nearly four decades, rules of propriety gradually relaxed or fell away. Such behavior includes chanting vulgarities and criticism against the opposing team and their fans. Insults are also directed at fellow Iranians and our national team members and include threats and slurs against their female relatives’ honor and purity. This is not acceptable.

This behavior is occurring in public places from which women are forbidden, but where boys and young men who love football go to be surrounded by their role models on the field and in the stands. This is a terrible education for younger generations who spend time in this toxic environment.

In sum, the only way to change this culture is to shift the balance by letting women enter stadiums. It is engrained in our culture for Iranian men and boys to behave respectfully towards women, especially at public gatherings such as concerts, theaters, and in the streets where thousands of Iranian men, women, girls, and boys all gather after a national team victory to celebrate.

Despite the desire, attempts, and pronouncements by many people, including President Rouhani, to overturn the ban, there appears no way to end this discrimination.

The only institution with the power to change this enduring practice is FIFA, the powerful international football federation. The stadium ban in Iran clearly violates FIFA’s gender discrimination rules and its new human rights policy, so FIFA needs to simply demand that Iran stop the ban.

Yet, FIFA president Gianni Infantino has exerted no effort in this direction. He remained silent during his March visit to Iran. As he watched a competition in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, 35 Iranian women were arrested for attempting to attend the game.

To pressure FIFA President Gianni Infantino to use his power to stop the Iranian ban, I created a petition which now has more than 180,000 signatures—the number of seats in Azadi stadium, where women have for so long not been welcome. By allowing the ban to persist, Mr. Infantino shows he is complicit in perpetuating gender discrimination and alienating female sports fans.

The inclusion of Iranian women and girls is not only good for Iran, it’s good for the game of football.

Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei