Friday, June 15th was a day of joy. It was Eid-ul-Fitr, the day marking the end of Ramadan, the month in which Muslims around the world fast, pray and persevere. It is a day to celebrate. Across the globe, eyes were on a match between Iran and Morocco. These two teams had never met in the World Cup prior to this day. It was a day that many will remember. Not only was the devastating result—an own goal by Aziz Bouhaddouz in extra time that put the Persians up 1- 0—a moment of reflection on how soccer can break hearts, but also on how one team’s despair and loss results in jubilation for others.
Then there are those whose prize is not simply the score—it is to be able to drink in this moment in person. To cheer, laugh, cry with thousands of others in any stadium is a right; to love football is a birthright. But for women in Iran, it is not possible. A law enacted in 1979 and touted by rigid Islamic clerics bans them from attending any sporting events in public stadiums. For women who love sports, being in the stands or watching in public spaces, cheering on your favourite team as they thrashed through group stages or are inches away from hoisting a trophy, is an incredible experience. But many women in Iran, particularly the younger generation of sports lovers, have never had that opportunity.
I wish I was in the stadium with you. It seems like pure joy.
So when my friend and sports activist “Sara” attended her first match on that blessed day, she celebrated Eid in the most natural and wondrous way possible: cheering Team Melli with other passionate and dedicated football fans.
I first met Sara over five years ago through Twitter. I knew that women were not permitted in stadiums in Iran because one of my favourite movies, Jafar Panahi’s Offside from 2006 (based on his own daughter’s unsuccessful attempt to enter a stadium) details the stories of several different young women simply trying to watch a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. The movie was filmed in Iran but screening of it was banned there.
The vast majority of my Persian friends are avid football lovers or have some connection to the sport. Iranian women have always been committed to supporting the national team, whether through face-painting, wearing red, white and green scarves, cheering, or supplications to Allah to help the team succeed. I remember watching Iran beat the USA in the group stages of the 1998 World Cup while at university, with two of my closest Persian friends. They offered to buy everyone in the restaurant a drink. I don’t drink and so I opted for fessenjoon. It was masterful. We enjoyed their emphatic jubilation with Persian sweets and tea and lots of banter.
But, until I met Sara, I never realized how painfully Iranian women are kept from the most basic right in sports: to be able to partake safely in watching. Simply existing as a spectator is not allowed. She told me about an organization she ran called Open Stadiums; its sole purpose is to lobby Iranian authorities to change the law and allow women to enter stadiums. She told me about the work they did, how much they desperately needed amplification, the potential danger that existed in these protests, and how she yearned to watch a match in person. Women in Iran have been detained for dressing up as men and boys in order to enter stadiums.
If women are, in fact, such a huge problem—why not ban them all?
One of the most harrowing moments of my relationship with Sara occurred while attending a Women’s World Cup match at Landsdown Stadium in Ottawa in June 2015. I had been tweeting euphorically about my experience and she sent me a very simple message saying “I wish I was in the stadium with you. It seems like pure joy.” In that moment my heart broke at the situation she—and countless others—were forced to be in. I realized my privilege, inherent in my right of mobility and my access to something as simple as a soccer game in a huge stadium. Watching that match with my daughter and niece was indeed joyous. Sitting in an open air stadium with thousands of fans, eating overpriced junk food and marveling at the skilled footballers was incredible—and something that all women should be able to experience. I thought about Sara constantly afterwards, and the injustice of the situation she and countless others are forced to endure. I funneled those thoughts into a piece about Sara and the Iranian stadium ban in 2015. I wrote again soon after when Human Rights Watch got involved and were lobbying the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) to allow women to watch matches.
Now, Sara is diligently sharing, documenting and following all the news while she is in Russia. But despite the #LetWomenIn and #Watch4Women campaigns and Change.org petitions signed by over 60,000 people, there has been no change in Iran’s policy allowing women in the stands to watch matches being played in Iranian stadiums. FIFA states in one of the many reports it has published that discrimination of any kind is not acceptable. Yet, expunging women from the stadiums is tolerated.
Over the last five years, empty promises to change this ban have been repeated by Sepp Blatter and Gianni Infantino. Just before the start of the 2018 World Cup, the head of Tehran’s Azadi stadium announced women would be permitted to watch live streamed 2018 World Cup matches in “family areas”. This has not yet happened. Sara doubts it will.
Like all other times, she is understandably hesitant to celebrate. “In all these years we saw promises but not any actions,” she tells me via private message.
This news about big screen in stadium beside it’s really strange [sic] but also until it happens we should wait because who knows! At the same time there’s Volleyball nations league just with walking distance from Azadi football stadium let’s see this year they gonna let women in or not.
— OpenStadiums (@openStadiums) June 20, 2018
But in an unprecedented move, Azadi stadium opened its doors to allow women to watch a live stream of Iran’s match against Spain. The Persians lost 1-0 but the women and girls in Iran most certainly won. The opportunity to take up space in a place that holds what they love: the beautiful game. I asked Sara about this change. Isn’t it a win?
Her reply is measured and considerate, the words obviously those of a woman who has done a tremendous amount of grassroots activism: “This was a taboo and now it’s not. I am very happy but let’s see…”
Of course the end goal is not only to be allowed to enter for one match, it is for women and girls to be welcomed—consistently—in every sports arena in Iran, and to watch a live match in person rather than view one on screen. But again, just days after the world celebrated a win for Iranian women, FIVB held a volleyball tournament and women were not allowed to enter the facilities and watch.
Iranian women play sports. They are magnificent. In a superb final against Japan, the Iranian women won the Asian Football Confederation Women’s Futsal Championship in May.
There is a strong history of football, women and resistance in Iran. There are grassroots activists and campaigns, such as @OpenStadiums led by Sara, and there are team development programs and strategies spearheaded by former players like Katayoun Khosrowyar. Women in Iran play football, they are even encouraged to do so—but they aren’t permitted to watch it. From female Iranian politicians to male footballers former and current, including Iranian legend Ali Karimi and Iranian national team captain Masud Shojaei respectively, this issue has garnered support within the country and drawn national attention
Honestly, I was sad in stadium. I couldn’t think about all the girls I know that their dream is go to the stadium, and you know I didn’t even know how to cheer.
The inconsistencies in the rule itself are hard to miss. There can’t be a claim that women offend a moral code of behaviour when even Saudi Arabia, a country rigid in its policies towards women that has been stagnant in its inclusion of women in sports, started allowing women to attend matches in stadiums this year if they sat in designated family areas.
The other mind-boggling part is that the rule applies only to Iranian women. Meaning that women from other countries are allowed to attend. If women are, in fact, such a huge problem—why not ban them all? Why do Iranian women have to suffer this misfortune and unjust rejection? To be clear, this ban does not only apply to football but any sporting event held in Iran. There are many international sports federations who are complicit in this injustice.
Another complication is that outsider well-wishers do not always turn to the women at the center of the issue when they attempt to offer support. It cannot be repeated enough: Sara and other women have been lobbying for change for over 13 years. When outside organizations and individuals try to take over the conversation and explain it, that is another form of injustice. There exist tremendously powerful allies who are sincere in their approach, but the media must treat Sara respectfully and center her voice, recognizing her as someone who is not only at the frontline of this fight, but whom this affects personally. Again, it is vital that nuanced discussions replace vacuous allyship and lazy reporting. There have been brilliant pieces published by Iranian women on being able to attend matches outside of Iran, that do, in fact, amplify this cause and help implore the football loving world that this basic respect and equality is imperative and urgent.
For Sara, the opportunity to cheer for the team she loves in the sport she loves came on Eid day. The cheers were loud in St. Petersburg Stadium. That jubilation reverberated in Tehran, in homes, in restaurants, in offices and in hearts. This time, Sara could take part in it. She was messaging me from the stadium. When she sent me a video I was able to live vicariously through her in that moment. I remember attempting to compose an intelligent message when I saw the goal in extra time. All I could come up with was “AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”.
I’m sure she forgave my lack of prose, but all I could do was feel ecstatic for her.
Unfortunately, her words brought me back down to reality very quickly. “Honestly, I was sad in stadium. I couldn’t think about all the girls I know that their dream is go to the stadium, and you know I didn’t even know how to cheer. I never been to such a huge place with 60,000 people.” Her honesty about the situation was heart wrenching. “I was thinking why at 35 years old my dream is to go to stadiums? I was remembering all the things we’ve been through, demonstrations, arrestments, threats, disappointments…Maybe in next match i’ll be better!”
Sara only had a ticket for Iran’s first match in the World Cup but she will be staying in Russia a little longer to take in the excitement of the world’s biggest sports event. Simply walking through the streets with tens of thousands of football-loving fans is brilliant. Sitting in a huge stadium and watching her countrymen play in person was something that she had dreamed of. And it is not something she is able to do at home.
Sara’s work is a constant battle for the right for women to enter stadiums, but it is a battle that she and so many other women should not have to fight. For those whom sports is a vehicle for justice and equality, or those who call themselves a feminist, or even those who love football so much, the right of women to watch matches freely in Iranian stadiums is a win for the beautiful game.
“I couldn’t stop crying when I saw the green field, for those days we fought, for days they didn’t let us enter to stadium… but we never gave up” https://t.co/GjXCJH5R1Y
— OpenStadiums (@openStadiums) June 23, 2018
I hope that Azadi stadium, the home of Iran’s national team, gets to hold all spectators with integrity- Azadi means “freedom” in Persian. Iranian women deserve football and the football community in Iran would only benefit from them. Iranian women, whose love and passionate for this incredible sport manifests in their resistance and tenacity to push for change, deserve to love football freely.