Iranian women have scored another victory as they publicly viewed a World Cup game for only the second time in 40 years, but their team was eliminated from the tournament partly as a result of controversial decisions by referees in a game against Portugal.
Iranian women were allowed to watch their team's match against Portugal on a big screen in Tehran's Azadi Stadium on June 25, Iran's ISNA news agency reported, despite some complaints from religious hard-liners who continue to back a ban on women attending games.
Since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have been barred from male soccer matches, in part because religious authorities say they should be shielded from hearing male fans swearing and cursing.
But Iranian President Hassan Rohani has repeatedly criticized the ban and recently assured soccer authorities it will be lifted, though he has so far failed to officially eliminate it because of resistance from powerful hard-liners in Tehran.
The attendance of women at the game on June 25 came after the Tehran stadium's doors were opened for the first time since 1979 on June 20 for women to watch Iran's World Cup match against Spain, when hundreds of women attended.
While women watched the game in Tehran on June 25, an Iranian activist in Russia who had been blocked last week from protesting at World Cup events against Iran's ban was allowed to renew her protest at the stadium in Saransk, Russia, where the Iranian team's match against Portugal occurred.
"It feels like a victory to be holding up the banner again," Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Shojaei has launched an online petition urging Gianni Infantino, president of the FIFA world soccer governing body, to pressure Iran to overturn its ban.
By June 25, the petition had passed its target of 100,000 signatures -- symbolizing the number of seats in Azadi Stadium
Adding to the international pressure to lift the ban, Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi and 17 other prominent women wrote an open letter to FIFA saying it had "for too long closed its eyes" to Tehran's discrimination against women.
"The disconnect between the people of Iran and the government of Iran on this issue is glaring," the women wrote in the letter circulated by the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group.
They said the ban derived from the same mentality that also prevented Iranian women from travelling alone or having equal weight in a court of law.
"By challenging this discriminatory behavior, one is challenging this mentality in all its applications," said the letter, which was also signed by Oscar-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, Homeland actress Nazanin Boniadi, singer Googoosh, and comedian Shappi Khorsandi.
But Iran's chief prosecutor, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, signaled that hard-liners in Iran's judiciary still supported the ban on June 24 when he said he was "ashamed" of the recent experience opening the stadium up to women.
"Some women removed their head scarves and started to sing and dance... This is disrespect to our martyrs and betrayal of the revolution," he said.
While debate continues in Tehran over allowing women into stadiums, Iran's soccer fans were stunned by their team's elimination from the tournament after a 1-1 draw with Portugal late on June 25 after several controversial decisions by video-assisted referees (VAR) during the game.
Iran's team, which staged a dramatic last-minute surge and nearly scored another point in the closing moments of the game, needed to win the Group B game to advance any further in the tournament.
The controversial VAR decisions prompted protests on the field from Iranian players and a public complaint by the team's coach after the game.
Coach Carlos Queiroz said he was particularly angry that Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo was not issued a red card when his elbow struck Iranian defender Morteza Pouraliganji in the face. Ronaldo had aggressively initiated contact from behind on the play.
Queiroz attacked the VAR system, which he said "costs a fortune" while producing debatable decisions and should be reformed by FIFA.
"Thousands of dollars, five guys sitting upstairs and they don't see an elbow? Give me a break," Queiroz told a news conference in Saransk.
But Iranian team captain Masoud Shojaei was philosophical about the loss to Portugal, which is the reigning European champion. He said Iran will earn respect for having made the win so difficult for Portugal, successfully holding back its famed scorer Ronaldo for much of the game.
"Although we did not qualify to the next stage, we have thousands of Iranians seeing a competitive team that can make them dream. In four years, we will be even better," he said.
After the game, Portugal coach Fernando Santos called Iran "the best Asian team" at the moment.