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Man Base To Fan Base: Tehran Adds Women To 'Unity' Billboard For World Cup

Many critics had blasted the original billboard as sexist and discriminatory for not including any women.

A huge billboard unveiled in the Iranian capital this week to boost national unity and fan support ahead of soccer's World Cup has been replaced following widespread anger at its exclusion of women.

Perched over a major square in downtown Tehran, the new sign includes several women within a line of about two dozen people alongside kitted-out players from the Iranian national team, which is making its fifth appearance at soccer's signature event in Russia.

Both iterations of the billboard show people wearing the clothing of Iran's various ethnic groups below the slogan: "Together we are champions. One nation, one heartbeat."

Many critics had blasted the original billboard as sexist and discriminatory for not including any women.

Iran bans women spectators from entering stadiums for men's sporting events, and police will lock up offenders who try to ignore the prohibition -- drawing fire from international sports bodies and rights groups.

The arrest of dozens of Iranian women for trying to sneak into an international soccer match in Tehran in March prompted officials from the sport's world governing body, FIFA, to call President Hassan Rohani later the same day to extract a pledge that women would be allowed to attend such matches. But critics pointed out that Iranian officials had given such assurances in the past but they had gone unfulfilled.

The first billboard that appeared above Tehrani drivers this week depicted more than a dozen men of various ethnic communities cheering and celebrating, with some of them holding a World Cup-like trophy.

'Half A Nation Forgotten'

It led to criticism in local and social media.

"Without women, we lose," read the headline of the daily Ghanoon on June 14.

Deputy editor Mira Ghorbanifar posted a photo of the all-male billboard on Twitter and suggested that the world's first womanless nation had been born. "Until yesterday, they wouldn't allow women into stadiums, and in the new round they have eliminated them from the concept of a nation and a homeland, so the first nation without women has appeared," she tweeted on June 13, calling on Tehran officials to explain.

"We women have no share in our country's joys," user Banafsheh Jamali tweeted. "This is what we mean when we talk about gender discrimination and the elimination of half of the population."

Meanwhile, female lawmaker Fatemeh Zolghadr complained that the billboard should be replaced for "hurting the feelings "of Iranian women. "Women are not part of this nation?" she said in a June 14 interview with the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Other media quoted her as saying, "It's worrying that a single-gender [billboard] is being published and that half of the population are being forgotten."

Barzin Zarghami, the head of Tehran Beautification Organization, initially defended the billboard, saying it aimed to depict different ethnicities present in the national team and that "it wasn't at all about women or men."

Both billboards were the work of the Owj cultural institute responsible for the state's public-service announcements and other materials (including the anti-American posters that have appeared since the 1979 revolution), which is said to have ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Many Iranian women are passionate soccer fans despite the stadium ban, and some have managed to steal in to see matches inside the country by dressing like men.

Iran has many discriminatory laws that favor men, including in matters related to inheritance, divorce, and child custody, and effectively make women second-class citizens.

President Rohani, a relative moderate who won election in 2013 on a campaign that included calls for "equal opportunities for women," in May urged that "women...also be allowed to take part in sports events." l

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.