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Hard-Liners Upset, Iranian Women Celebrate After Buying Soccer Tickets For First Time

Iranian women cheer as they wave their country's flag after authorities in a rare move allowed a select female group into Tehran's Azadi Stadium to watch a friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia in 2018.

After decades of being banned from attending men's sporting events, Iran's female soccer fans are celebrating the fact they will be able to attend their national team's upcoming World Cup qualifier against Cambodia.

"I got a ticket, I will go to the stadium!" tweeted a woman, adding: "Can you believe I'm saying this?"

The game at Tehran's Azadi Stadium on October 10 will be the first time since shortly after Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 that women can watch a men's match without needing special, rare invitations or being forced to sneak in disguised as men.

The milestone comes following years of campaigning by women's rights activists and increased pressure from FIFA -- world soccer's governing body -- that intensified following the tragic death in September of a woman who set herself alight after being charged over a failed attempt to enter a stadium to watch her favorite team.

The announcement that some 3,500 segregated seats of the nearly 80,000 at the stadium would be reserved for women led to a joyous reaction from long-suffering followers of the sport.

Women -- as well as men -- have been celebrating on social media by posting copies of their tickets for the much-anticipated match, with the tickets reserved for women selling out within minutes after going on sale on October 4.

One woman said that, although she's 35-years-old, this is the first time she has bought a ticket to a soccer match.

"All those years when I understood football I wished I could go to the stadium and cheer for the Esteghlal [club soccer team in Tehran] and the national team," she said, adding that "it's too late [for me] but hopefully [this policy of allowing women to watch football matches] will continue and the younger generation won't have regrets like we do [of missing so many years of attending games]."

Excitement And Disbelief

Other women who managed to buy tickets expressed their excitement and disbelief on social media under the hashtag #Come_with_me_to_the_stadium (in Persian).

Demand was so strong that the reformist daily Etemad suggested that 2,000 more seats could be set aside for women at the October 10 game.

Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from attending male sporting events, despite scores of die-hard female fans for many sports.
Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from attending male sporting events, despite scores of die-hard female fans for many sports.

Many Iranian men also expressed their joy about the victory for Iranian women while expressing the hope that the women's attendance at Azadi Stadium won't be a one-off event.

"I bought tickets for my mother and my wife," said the deputy of Tehran's sports municipality, Farzad Radboy, on Twitter. He added that he will be babysitting his 10-month-old daughter on October 10 so that his mother and his wife can enjoy the match in peace.

Sports journalist Mohammad Hossein Ajorloo said he hadn't been to a football stadium in years but that he was planning to attend the game against Cambodia to witness from afar "the joy of my wife, my sisters, and my nephew who loves soccer -- my friends and happy women."

But those fans' joy has not been shared by religious hard-liners who oppose more freedom for women and who staged a small protest on October 7 in the Iranian capital to show their discontent with the decision.

Protest Outside Parliament

About 50 hard-liners protested outside of parliament while calling for action against those behind the decision.

In tracts published ahead of the protest, the demonstrators said the action allowing female spectators to watch the game was not in line with calls by senior clerics -- including Aytatollah Makarem Shirazi -- who have said in the past that it was "unsuitable" for women to enter stadiums due to the mingling of sexes and because of men's "improper" uniforms that reveal too much of their bodies.

The country's powerful hard-liners claim the atmosphere at stadiums is inappropriate for women.

Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from attending male sporting events, including soccer matches, despite scores of die-hard female fans for many sports.

On very rare occasions in recent years, Iran has allowed small groups of selected women to enter stadiums. But amid increased pressure from abroad, authorities have suggested that the 40-year-old ban on female spectators could be permanently eased or lifted.

FIFA has consistently called on Iran to take concrete measures for women to be allowed access to all national and international matches -- not just the game against Cambodia.

It said its position was clear and that "women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran" for all football matches.

The ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan criticized the decision to allow women to attend male sporting events by suggesting it wasn't a priority for them and that women have more pressing problems that need to be addressed.

Hurting Women's 'Dignity'

Kayhan even interviewed several women who suggested that being allowed into stadiums for men's games would not help resolve issues such as unemployment and poverty.

The daily echoed the hard-liners' views in suggesting that the atmosphere inside stadiums could hurt the "dignity" of women.

It also warned that "those who dream of driving out women from their key motherhood role, home management, and the education of [future generations]" are hurting the country by pushing for "illogical" issues such allowing women at men's sports events.

Women's rights activists have long criticized the ban as a clear example of state-imposed gender discrimination against women who also face discriminatory laws that deny them equal rights in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas.

Women were banned from entering stadiums a few years following the 1979 revolution when segregation in some public places, including schools, was enforced.

But since the early 2000s, women have been peacefully pushing for the right to attend male sports events. Dozens of women have been detained and charged for defying the ban in recent years.

Domestic and international criticism of the restrictive policy increased sharply following the September 9 death of 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari, dubbed "Blue Girl" for the colors of her favorite team, Esteghlal.

'We're All Born Equal': Iranian Soccer Fans, Players Mourn Death Of Banned Girl
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Khodayari self-immolated outside a courthouse where she had been summoned after being arrested for trying to enter Azadi Stadium in March dressed as a man.

Her death caused outrage with some calling on FIFA to suspend or ban the Iranian Football Federation if Tehran did not overturn the ban.

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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.