The incidents of March 29 in the northeastern city of Mashhad rekindled a dormant debate on the right of Iranian women to attend soccer matches as spectators.
Iran’s national football team, which previously qualified for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, was slated to play Lebanon in its final World Cup qualifier showdown last Tuesday. Nearly 2,000 women purchased tickets to watch the game at the Imam Reza Stadium, but in front of the venue gates, they were abruptly told they couldn’t watch the match.
Having valid tickets, the women resisted and chanted in protest, but were met with tear gas and pepper spray. Some women were reportedly beaten with batons, and others sustained injuries from pepper spray.
Authorities in Mashhad, one of the holiest Shiite cities in Iran, autonomously enforce an array of restrictions on civil liberties that exceed norms in the rest of the country. These include a de facto ban on live music performances and a stricter hijab mandate, particularly at the Shrine of the 8th Shiite Imam Reza, where all female pilgrims are required to wear chadors, a head-to-toe covering.
The city is mostly conservative, owing to its credentials as a pilgrimage hub, but the younger generation is more progressive — which helps explain why 2,000 women in the religious city bought tickets to watch a men’s football game.
Since 1979, the government has banned women from entering stadiums, although it is not codified in any legislation. Women in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq and a host of other Muslim-majority countries have access to stadiums.
In March 2018, FIFA President Gianni Infantino traveled to Tehran and met then-President Hassan Rouhani to obtain assurances that women would not be excluded from stadiums.
Since then, on a handful of occasions involving Iran’s national football team, women were allocated minuscule quotas to watch matches under tight security measures and in segregated areas of the stadiums. Many observers say the concessions are only to steer clear of possible FIFA punishments.
But after the episode in Mashhad, it is unclear how the relationship between Iran’s football federation and FIFA will evolve, or whether Iranians should brace for retribution. Iran’s opposition in exile has been running petitions and urging FIFA to banish Iran from the World Cup.
President Ebrahim Raisi has asked the Ministry of Interior to report on the Mashhad incident. But it is unlikely the ministry, which supervises law enforcement, will independently investigate what happened and come up with a transparent public report on why the 2,000 women were barred from the match despite possessing tickets and having been told that they would be allowed in.
Some experts say allowing women into stadiums remains a social fault line in Iran because the government believes it will open the floodgates to young girls and women demanding greater freedoms, including the abolition of the state’s strict Islamic dress code.
An expert on gender studies and Iranian women says the heavy-handed police crackdown in Mashhad illustrates how gender discrimination in Iran does not differentiate between religious and secular citizens.
“The majority of women who were assaulted with pepper spray by the state security forces did not actually necessarily come from secular or less religious backgrounds,” said Sara Tafakori, a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Leeds. Such repressive measures "are often seen by conservative and traditional women as legitimately directed towards secular women," she told Al-Monitor. “But the indiscriminate character of this state violence is actually a good indication of the broadly patriarchal nature of the restrictions imposed on women.”
Annahita Mahdavi West, an associate professor at Long Beach City College in California and a commentator on Iran, says women “are changing the socio-political [and] cultural fabric of the Iranian society one step at a time, and above all, Iranian women also bring concepts of joy with their sports practices, dances, music, singing, and even participation as soccer fans.” But, she told Al-Monitor, “sadly, joy is a psychological dynamic that goes against the morbid culture that the regime has built in Iran.”
In September 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old football fan, immolated herself in front of a Tehran court that had warned her she might face a six-month prison sentence after attempting to enter the Azadi Stadium, disguised as a man, to watch a football match featuring her favorite squad, Esteghlal FC. Her death sent shockwaves nationally and drew much greater attention to the issue. She is known as the Blue Girl, after the jersey colors of the team she adored.