For the first time since just after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, women have been allowed to attend football matches in Iran. This follows the self-immolation of ‘blue girl’ who was recently detained for disguising herself as a man to be able to watch a football match, an event which caused outrage in the football community across the globe.

The ban was not written into law but “ruthlessly enforced” (according to The Human Rights Watch) with the argument that women must be shielded from the ‘masculine atmosphere’ and sight of semi clad men. This ‘gesture’ has arisen from the selfimmolation of Sahar Khodayari, known online as ‘blue girl’ for wearing the colours of her team (Esteqlal of Tehran). She was arrested in March for disguising herself as a man to attend a match.

After being imprisoned for three days, she was released on bail and awaited her court case six months later. It was outside court where she set herself on fire, after discovering that her trial had been postponed and allegedly overhearing that she could get between six months and two years in prison. She died a week later due to injuries at the age of 29.

Khodayari was not alone in concealing her gender to be allowed entry. There have been increasingly more “bearded girls” or “azadi girls” disguising themselves so as to support their favourite teams despite facing detention as a consequence. In 2006, Jafar Panahi directed Offside, a film about women trying to watch the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. Despite being set in Iran, it was banned from being screened there, yet was critically acclaimed, notably winning a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

The international governing body of football, FIFA responded to Khodayari’s
death by pressuring Tehran to allow women to attend World Cup qualifiers. It stated that it would “stand firm” to ensure that women have access to all football matches in Iran and threatened to suspend the Islamic Republic over its discriminatory male-only policy. They label this time as “a real moment for change”.

In spite of FIFA’s pride in its actions, one of the statutes in its constitution states that discrimination on the grounds of gender is “strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion”. It has taken Khodayari’s death to make FIFA act on its own constitution as the ban has persisted and Iran have not been suspended.

On Thursday the 10th of October, 3,500 women attended the World Cup qualifier against Cambodia. They were seated in a separate women’s only section of the Azadi (in Farsi meaning freedom) stadium and watched over by more than 150 female police officers (figure taken from Fars News Agency). The stadium’s capacity is 78,000, meaning only 5% of the seating was reserved for women, while footage reveals that there was plenty of available seating in the men’s sections of the stadium. BBC Persian Sport reported that the FA would not give more seats to the women who wanted to attend, even though only 2,500 men had purchased tickets. The first batch of tickets for women sold out in less than an hour. However, this move was symbolic of a moment of change in the attitudes towards female football fans in Iran.

Those women who were lucky enough to secure tickets were crammed in, decorated in their national colours of red, green and white, and wearing face paint and wigs. They were delighted to see Iran win 14-0 to Cambodia. The BBC quote a woman from Twitter who posted “We had fun for three hours. All of us laughed, some of us cried because we were so happy”. This issue, while not seemingly essential compared to other issues women face in countries such as Iran, is still an important step.

Although women had been allowed into the stadium to watch a screening of their team playing Spain in the 2018 World Cup, this was the first time they had been allowed to watch a live game on the pitch of Tehran. Iranian Football journalist, Raha Poorbakhsh, had the opportunity to comment on the match in person. She remarked that “after all these years of working in this field, watching everything on television, now I can experience everything in person” which simultaneously speaks to the joy that this change has sparked and the absurdity of the ban. Although there is a sense of gratitude among Iranian women, one woman going by the pseudonym of ‘Sara’ says it could be managed much better as it should be a “family sport” yet being segregated by gender does not allow for this.

Since the game, feedback has been significantly positive towards the change. Masoud Shojeai, the captain of the male Iranian football team posted on Instagram that the ban is “rooted in outdated and cringeworthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations” and this incredulous attitude is shared by many. In the past two years, at least 40 women have been arrested due to going to football games disguised as men and as Suzanne Wrack of The Guardian says, progress is “painstakingly slow”.

According to her, the gesture is not enough, the ban needs to be completely lifted, along with the charges of those who face prosecution and their criminal records. Many share this dissatisfaction, Amnesty labelling the move as a “cynical publicity stunt” and Human Rights Watch noting that there was only a “token number” of tickets offered to women so as to appease FIFA. Joyce Cook, its head of education and social responsibility told BBC Sport “it’s not just about one match. We’re not going to turn our eyes away from this” which is reassuring in so much as it shows they will not let Iran continue to discriminate against gender separation in the face of football.

The situation has challenged ingrained attitudes in Iranian society, notably the exclusion of women from public spaces and their role in society. Some are less enthusiastic about the change and remain unconvinced. Prosecutor General of the Islamic Republic, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri maintains that it is a sin for women to go to the stadium and see “half naked” men, which emphasises the significance of the change and underlines the dominance of tradition in Iran.

These attitudes are found diluted among many Iranian men, like in Nader Fathi, a clothing business owner. He felt that although the presence of women could benefit the atmosphere in the stadiums, “they will regret it” if exposed to “swear words” and “bad behaviour”. Many believe that the activists deserve the credit for imploring FIFA. ‘Open Stadiums’, a movement of Iranian women “seeking to end discrimination and let women attend stadiums” (@openStadiums Twitter) often wrote to the organisation about the ban and have campaigned for women’s access for 15 years. The spokesperson for the group blames FIFA for Sahar Khodayari’s death “because they knew this for years and they should’ve done it a lot sooner”.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino has tried to pressure Iran to allow women to watch domestic league matches, however authorities have only committed to make World Cup qualifiers inclusive. This change, which is long overdue and outdated, is not enough. It is unacceptable that FIFA did not intervene sooner, and that an innocent woman’s death has not inspired more meaningful or progressive action. In spite of this, it has provoked an international conversation about women’s rights within sport which is a minor victory, but the dialogue must not end here. We still have a long way to go.