SAINT PETERSBURG — Travel to Russia, even with lost luggage and long layovers, couldn’t dampen the excitement of my first World Cup experience.
After I posted a photo on social media of myself with my FIFA-issued fan ID hanging around my neck, comments began pouring in from my friends back in Iran. Several of my Iranian female friends — die-hard football fans who have been trying to get into stadiums for years in Iran commented — “Wonderful, I wish I was there … Think of me when you are there!” How could I not, as for years I also wanted to be able to watch football in stadiums, something that is still forbidden for women in Iran.
As a 31-year-old Iranian woman, I was thrilled at my first chance to see my national team in person — Team Melli! — playing in a stadium.
I remember the first time I begged my dad to sneak me into a football match. It was 2002, and longtime rivals Iran and Iraq were facing each other for the FIFA World Cup qualifying match at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. There was no doubt that the stadium would be filled to maximum capacity. My father and all our male family friends were going to watch the game, and I was ready to do anything to join them.
I had even brought a hat and a sweater along as we were dropping my dad off at the stadium, hoping to convince him to let me sport my makeshift disguise to cheer on Team Melli. But alas, my dad, always the (wisely) cautious one, was too afraid of the risks to let me go. Instead, like all the other girls and women, I watched that game, and many other Iranian football matches, only on television.
Until Friday in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Over the past 16 years, Iranian women have fought back against this discrimination by campaigning, lobbying lawmakers, and even disguising themselves as men to get into stadiums.
In the days since I arrived in the city, you could hear Iranians — men and women — chanting happily in support of Team Melli across the city. I met dozens of women who had come from Iran and abroad with their families and friends to experience a right that was taken away from them in their home country.
Among the national teams playing in the World Cup in Russia, Iran is the only country that bans women from watching certain men’s sports games, including football and volleyball, in stadiums. Over the past 40 years, Iranian authorities have thrown out an array of shallow justifications for the ban, ranging from religious grounds to problems with ensuring security and gender-specific facilities.
In March, police arrested some 35 women who were gathered in front of Azadi Stadium to watch a game between two popular Tehran teams, Esteqlal and Persepolis, and detained them for several hours. As an inauspicious start to FIFA’s new Human Rights Policy, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was present at this very stadium during the game while the police arrested Iranian women outside of it for wanting to enjoy the same rights as the 100,000 men attending.
Following criticism from right activists and a group of Iranian women who have been campaigning to remove the ban, the FIFA chief announced in a subsequent statement that President Rouhani had told him that there are plans to allow women to attend football matches in the country “soon.” Yet, more than three months have passed, and Iran has done nothing to allow women to attend stadiums to watch games.
Despite the dug-in intransigence of Iranian government hardliners to maintain the ban on women in stadiums for men’s sports matches, Iranian societal views on it have swung in the opposite direction. Not only do activists back overturning the ban, so do sizable segments of Iranian society, and several acclaimed athletes, including the captain of Iran’s national team, Masoud Shojaei, support lifting the ban, but several members of the Iranian Parliament and President Hassan Rouhani himself have spoken about the need to allow women back into stadiums.
Yet when I was in St. Petersburg preparing to cheer inside the stadium, Iranian activists tweeted that authorities canceled announced plans to finally let women into Azadi stadium to (virtually) watch the Iran-Morocco match, yet again dashing the hope of dozens of Iranian women who wanted to cheer with their families.
FIFA, which has pledged to uphold non-discrimination as a fundamental principle in the tournaments it oversees, has a responsibility to use its leverage and push Iran in the right direction. Iranian women have the right to share the joy of shouting the Team Melli slogan, “80 Million People, One Nation, One Heart Beat” in front of their team!
Tara Sepehri Far is the Iran researcher for Human Rights Watch, and a lifelong fan of Team Melli. Follow her on Twitter here.