A photo that went viral on social media in Iran last month epitomized the sad state of affairs for women who simply want to watch a male sports event in person.
It showed a group of men watching the Esteghlal soccer team play in Tehran's Azadi Stadium, with a woman standing on her toes behind a metal fence far behind the men and clapping enthusiastically while cheering on the players.
The photo highlights female fans' plight of having to watch from outside the stadium or not at all because Iranian women -- including scores of passionate soccer fans -- are not allowed into arenas when men are playing sports.
Two years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, ultraconservative clerics were able to begin enforcing the ban on women at men's sporting events to prevent them from seeing frenetic male fans, hearing their salty slogans and cheers, and athletes wearing relatively short and tight uniforms that are not usual in everyday life in Iran.
The ban has been lifted occasionally for a select group of female spectators, while some other hard-core female soccer fans have managed to defy the ban on rare occasions by disguising themselves as men.
But now FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has significantly upped the pressure on Iranian officials to abolish -- or at least relax to some degree -- the ban they have enforced for nearly 40 years on women attending men's sports events.
"We are coordinating with effective bodies through various channels -- while respecting religious, cultural, and ethical considerations -- to allow the presence of women at our national matches," Sports Minister Masud Soltanifar said in an interview published last month.
"[Iranian] women have been allowed to become managers, they have become ministers, they have become members of the parliament, they have been allowed to be part of the highest levels of decision-making," Soltanifar told Iran Varzeshi sports magazine in a July 27 interview, adding that "why are we blocking them [from stadiums] and creating a cost for the Islamic republic."
Soltanifar, who noted that Iran was the only country in the world that bans women from stadiums, said the government was working to create separate entrances, separate seating, and separate game-day services for women in stadiums.
"We have a [national team home] match [coming up] this year [in October] and we have to do it," he said.
The comments come following a June 18 letter by FIFA President Gianni Infantino to Mehdi Taj, the president of Iran's soccer federation (FFIRI), initially setting a July 15 deadline for Tehran to inform FIFA of "concrete steps" the federation would take to ensure that "all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so" could attend World Cup qualification games, which start in September.
Although Infantino did not say what will happen if Tehran refuses to lift the ban on women, activists and sports commentators have suggested that the Iranian national team -- which has been one of the top squads in Asia for many years -- could face punitive measures, including losing points in its bid to qualify for the 2022 World Cup or even to be excluded from that prestigious competition, which is held every four years.
"FIFA is confident that, with the support of the FFIRI and its leadership, we will continue to make progress on this matter and we are also optimistic that the [state] authorities will help us to achieve our ultimate objective," a FIFA spokesperson told RFE/RL in an e-mail about possible consequences Iran could face if it did not change its approach.
"By doing so, we will be ensuring the fulfillment of one of the most basic principles set out in the FIFA [statutes] -- that of guaranteeing that football is available for all who wish to participate, regardless of gender," the spokesperson added.
The head of the Professional Football Licensing Appeals Committee of Iran's soccer federation, Dariush Mostafavi, said on August 4 that FIFA set an August 30 deadline for Tehran "to sort out the presence of women in stadiums."
"It's not a joke," Mostafavi said, according to Iranian media.
Why Are Stadiums Special?
With the deadline looming, Iranian media reported that several soccer matches have been held in the country in recent days without spectators, apparently to prevent FIFA from taking action over the exclusion of women.
A key date is October 10, when the national team, known affectionately as Team Melli, will face Cambodia in Azadi Stadium, which, despite its name meaning freedom, has been off-limits to Iranian women.
A member of @OpenStadiums, which has been battling the prohibition on women spectators in Iran, told RFE/RL that authorities were likely to allow "a group of women" to attend the October 10 match. But she suggested in a tweet that such a move would not necessarily mean that the ban on women will be fully lifted.
The woman, who uses the pseudonym Sara to protect her identity, said Iran could take advantage of Infantino's letter. "In the letter, Infantino only talked about Iran's World Cup qualification matches, which are a few matches and it's no big deal to handle women there," she said, adding that FIFA needed to make it clear to Iran that women should be allowed to attend national as well as Iranian league matches which, she said, have a legion of fans among Iranian women.
Soltanifar said in his recent interview that "the atmosphere of league tournaments is not very appropriate [for women]," which appeared to suggest that such tournaments could remain off-limits for mothers and daughters.
Last year, a group of selected women were allowed to watch a friendly match between Iran's national team and Bolivia in Tehran. The move -- which was praised as a step forward for women -- was quickly blasted by Iran's chief prosecutor, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, who said it was sinful for women to watch "half-naked" men play soccer.
And Montazeri poured cold water on the FIFA ultimatum on August 7 when he said allowing women to spectate at men's sporting events "is certainly not the concern of FIFA whether women are among the football fans in the stadiums or not," ISNA reported.
He also asked since when did FIFA care that Iranian women "will be robbed of the blessing of a football match?"
Earlier this week, senior Qom-based Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi reiterated the hard-line claim that the atmosphere of stadiums is not "suitable" for women due to the mingling of sexes and men's "improper" uniforms, which he said leads to social problems.
"Therefore, it is necessary [for women] to refrain from attending such events, especially because they can watch these programs on [TV and the Internet] and there's no need for them to be present," Shirazi told Etemadonline in a written statement. He did not explain why it was appropriate for women to watch men in "improper" outfits on television but not inside stadiums.
Another activist, Maryam Shojaei, who has campaigned against the discriminatory ban for the past five years, said two other well-respected clerics she had met in Qom some three years ago had said there's no religious prohibition for women to attend male sporting events.
Shojaei, the sister of Iranian national soccer team captain Masoud Shojaei, who has also spoken out against the ban, suggested that FIFA may be forced to take action against Iran in case of a failure by Iranian authorities to remove the ban. "It would look bad for FIFA not to do anything after having called on Iran to take measures [to remove the ban on women]," she said.
Shojaei added that she believes Iranian authorities will allow women to attend the October match. "If not, I believe FIFA will react, [though] the extent of its reaction remains to be seen; I don't think anyone knows at this point what it may be."
Meanwhile, Sara from @OpenStadiums said a question remained on the minds of many young Iranian women, including millions of Team Melli fans: "How come we can go anywhere we want for entertainment without gender segregation but [we're not allowed] into stadiums?"