Parastoo was buzzing with excitement. She had been left at home by her brothers and uncles, who had gone to watch a crucial match for Persepolis FC. They were assuming she would be staying inside to do what all female football fans in Iran do: watch the game on TV, or on social media.
But instead, Parastoo stole away and met a group of women. Together, they made their way – along with 81,000 men – to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, to watch their beloved team play for a place in the final of the Asian Champions League.
It was October 2018, and the prize on offer for Persepolis was a big one. But the prize for Parastoo, in her mid-twenties, was even greater: she was hoping this would be her first time seeing a match in the flesh. Along with her friends, she had taken the dangerous step of trying to smuggle herself into the game disguised as a man. Wearing a black jacket, a red shirt, red cap and with her hair tied up, anticipation cooled to hard nerves as she edged closer to the entrance gate.
As the noise that swept around the cavernous arena started to spill outside, she made it through one checkpoint and then a second. But it was third time unlucky. “The police saw us and said that women are not allowed and we have to return home,” she told me. “There are no freedoms for women in Iran, even those who want to watch football just once. It was humiliating.”
A year since she was turned away, a lot has changed for Iran’s female football fans. A ban on women spectators, the only one remaining in the world, has been in place since 1981, installed two years after the Islamic Revolution. But the ban is looking shakier than ever before.
On Thursday, an estimated 3,500 women watched Iran’s national team play a World Cup qualifier against Cambodia in the same Azadi Stadium where Parastoo was turned away. They sat in a women-only section and were controlled by female stewards – but that didn’t seem to bother those who managed to get their hands on the prized tickets.
At the match, Iran thrashed Cambodia 14-0. The special women’s section was full a whole hour before the match started – with the rest of the stadium virtually empty. “Women were celebrating with an hour to go to kick off – the men had not even arrived,” one woman, Nazanin, told the BBC. “The excitement was a rush – to be let into the stadium for the first time. We were very, very happy and excited to see the pitch, for real, for the first time in our lives.”
But whether the decision, announced suddenly on social media by the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) last Friday morning, marks a real change in attitude from the Iranian authorities, remains to be seen. It has taken years of bravery from determined fans to get the country to this point – but it was the tragic death of a young woman that really galvanised calls for meaningful change.
In March, Sahar Khodayari, a native of the holy city of Qom, went to the Azadi Stadium to watch her team Esteghlal, the Blues. She donned a blue wig and a long coat in an effort to disguise herself as a man, her sister told an Iranian media outlet, Rokna, at the time. But she was spotted, and arrested for “insulting the public by defying the dress code for women,” according to official court documents. She spent three nights in jail. Summoned to a courthouse on 2 September, she learned she could face jail time. She then set herself on fire outside the courthouse, and died six days later after sustaining burns to 90% of her body.
The story of her death went viral. She became known as the ‘Blue Girl’ (after her team’s colours), and a hashtag in tribute to her trended on Twitter around the world, and featured in more than 100,000 posts on Instagram. Her tragic death put the issue of women being barred from stadiums in the international and domestic spotlight like never before.
For Miss D, an activist and fan who helped to set up the Open Stadiums campaign in 2005, and who asked to remain anonymous, her death was a was a huge blow. “Sahar and I could have been close friends. We could have gone to watch our favourite teams together. Social media was full of messages of sympathy [after she died]. Looking at Sahar’s innocent face was very hard. I wish she was alive to see all the support she got. It was unacceptable to me that it would get to a point that a woman would set herself on fire to watch football.”
Miss D has spent years protesting outside the Azadi arena during games, fighting for women to be allowed to enter. The authorities eventually took measures to forcibly stop the women, but the protests moved to social media. “When the confrontations became violent, we focused on writing letters to Fifa, the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and foreign media to keep them informed of what’s happening. We started our English Twitter account in 2013 to publicise women’s actions to get inside stadiums. International help is very important because in Iran we cannot work very openly due to security issues. We need help.”
Yet the ban is an unofficial policy, rather than codified in law. “Hardliners view the presence of women in stadiums as a crack in their decades-long control over women,” explained Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Women who are arrested and prosecuted for trying to enter stadiums are detained under so-called ‘national security’ charges, like ‘propaganda against the state’.” It is a crack that Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s prosecutor-general, wants to keep firmly closed. “It is a sin for a woman to go to a stadium and face half-naked men,” he said in August. “We will not be silent in the face of those who break the taboos.”
Even the country’s great regional rival, Saudi Arabia, lifted the restriction on women in 2018 as part of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s effort to present a more modern image to the world. “The fact that the Saudi government, which has an awful human rights record, removed its ban first should be an embarrassment for the Iranian government and again highlights the unnecessary, discriminatory, and backward nature of Iran’s ban,” Memariam said.
But women continue to brave it. Sahar was arrested, Parastoo was turned away – but some get in and out, again and again. “There are many, many young girls who have tried going into stadiums,” Niloufar Momeni, an Iranian journalist who lives in Canada, said. “Some have been arrested, some have not.” In April last year, five women went viral after they successfully disguised themselves as men and made it into a Persepolis game.
VIDEO: Iranian girls who sneaked in Azadi Stadium in disguise cheer their team
— Sobhan Hassanvand (@Hassanvand) April 28, 2018
One woman who has continually escaped detection is Zeinab Safahi. In a country where it can be risky to speak out too openly, the Persepolis fan shows her 140,000 plus Instagram followers how she manages to transform herself into a boyish-looking fan. She ties her hair up, sometimes wears a fake beard and red face paint. Zeinab’s account paid tribute to the fellow fan, Sahar. “She burned herself for the sake of equal rights. I will neither forgive or forget and spit on my face if I am silent.”
Despite the intense rivalry between Persepolis, traditionally the team of Tehran’s working class, and Esteghlal, the establishment’s favourite, fans were united in their grief. Both teams held a minute’s silence before training and Esteghlal FC released a statement full of despair. “Our dear Sahar burnt herself to death, when she was charged to 6 month in jail for … going to the stadium to support her #Esteghlal,” it read. “She supported us despite the politics made it illegal for her, but what we can do to support her? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We are cowards.” On 16 September, football fans, all male of course, in the Iranian city of Rasht on the shores of the Caspian Sea sang: “Oh Blue Girl of Iran, your name is immortal, the football stands are empty of the pure women of Iran.”
The reaction among players of the national team, which has always been a symbol of pride in the country, was to speak out. Ali Karimi, a former Bayern Munich star, has called for a boycott of stadiums to protest the ban on women. Another former skipper, Masoud Shojeai, said after her death: “Shame on me for not having been able to do anything and shame on those who took away the most obvious right from Sahar and all Sahars.”
Anger is growing – and it is being directed at Fifa. Iran’s ban is in clear violation of the organisation’s regulations, which stress the basic human right of gender equality. “I believe Fifa is responsible for Sahar’s death and the imprisonment of football fans fighting to end the ban,” Miss D said. “It must exert all its pressure to end the ban as soon as possible.”
Where there has been capitulation by the authorities so far, it has been on a small scale. In June 2018, women were allowed to enter the Azadi to watch Iran’s World Cup games on big screens and, four months later, 100 hand-picked women watched Iran play Bolivia in a friendly match. Miss D, however, scoffs at the idea that progress had been made. “When some reporters got excited about this news, I wrote to several people that Iran probably did this to attract sympathy from the media,” she said. “Before that, all the news reports about Iran’s ban on women were negative. Unfortunately, media hype sometimes benefits dictators and makes the work of human rights activists a lot more difficult.”
Memarian also believes that these developments are mostly for show. “Unlike before, now we’re seeing some women, who are hand-picked, allowed to watch international games,” he said. “But the stadiums remain closed to women of the general public. By occasionally relaxing the ban, the government is lessening pressure from Fifa, which has asked them to let women in, and at the same time assuring hardliners that things have not changed. They basically manipulate Fifa.”
Fifa’s biggest stick would be to ban Iran from the international game, which it has done in the past. In November 2006, this was the punishment handed out to the Iranian Football Federation after there was political interference in the running of the game, contrary to Fifa rules. The situation was resolved quickly. In recent years in Asia alone, Indonesia, Pakistan and Kuwait have been banned for similar offences but Iran’s ban on women has not yet resulted in punishment.
To suspend Iran internationally would be a drastic – but clear – move. It would remove the national team from qualification for the 2022 World Cup – a blow to an Asian football powerhouse which has qualified for three of the last four tournaments. It would also remove Iran from the 2023 Asian Cup. Clubs would be expelled from the Asian Champions League and all kinds of youth tournaments would be affected. For an isolated country that loves football dearly – and takes immense pride in the fact that ‘Team Melli’ is the highest-ranked Asian team in the world – this would be a painful punishment.
A leading football journalist, who preferred not to give his name, believes it is the only way forward. “There is not one single reason to explain why women can’t enter stadiums, even in an Islamic country. It’s a show of power for the hardliners.” He predicts that women will be free to watch football in two or three years. “At one time, sports like chess and billiards were prohibited after the Islamic revolution but those bans were lifted without explanation. I think the same thing will happen for the women but Fifa’s pressure is crucial.”
But Iranian fans aren’t unsure it will work. “I think banning Iran from international games wouldn’t solve the issue of women’s entry to stadiums,” said journalist Niloufar Momeni. “There is no guarantee that the IFF would comply by allowing women in as there are many internal figures against it, so the ban could last years.” Momeni believes that Fifa should monitor ticketing systems and stadium entrances instead, to ensure that women are fairly and consistently admitted.
Parastoo agrees – and her logic is remarkably compassionate for a woman locked out of the sport she loves. “I don’t know whether sanctions would have a positive effect,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be deprived of the pleasure of watching football. I think there are many things that Fifa could do to overcome this that they have not tried yet.”
Thursday’s game – in which thousands of women were allowed to attend – was the result of modest pressure from Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, who demanded that women be allowed to watch the qualifier. The first batch of tickets sold out in under an hour, state media said. A sports ministry official said the 100,000-capacity stadium was ready to host even more women. Raha Poorbakhsh, a female football journalist who will be attending, told Agence France-Presse: “I still can’t believe this is going to happen because after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person.”
But the tragedy of Sahar Kohdayari continues to haunt fans – and after Thursday’s game, the ban will remain in place. On her Instagram page, Zeinab Sahafi described a dream. In it, a girl set herself on fire outside a football stadium in a foreign country and figures from Iran’s political, religious and football worlds rose up to demand that something be done to honour the fan’s name and prevent such a tragic event from happening again.
“But then I woke up and saw that the blue girl was buried secretly in Qom.”
This article was published on Thursday 10 October, and was updated on Friday 11 October
Photographs Getty Images and Zeinab Sahafi/Instagram