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Iranian women in stadium to watch Russia football friendly

Women football fans wave Iranian flags during the friendly match between Iran and Russia at Azadi Stadium in Tehran
— Tehran (AFP)

Iran on Thursday allowed female football fans into a stadium for a national team match for the first time in more than a year.

Hundreds of Iranian women cheered on the home side during the friendly against the Russian national team at the Azadi Stadium in the capital Tehran.

"I came from the (northeastern) city of Neyshabur for the love of Team Melli," said Fatemeh, a 29-year-old university student, referring to the national squad.

"I've been on the road for 12 hours," she added. "I'm very happy that we, women, can participate and see our national team up close and cheer for it."

The match -- which ended in a 1-1 draw -- came against the backdrop of months-long protests triggered by the September death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, an Iranian Kurd, after her arrest for an alleged breach of Iran's dress code for women.

Hundreds of people including dozens of security personnel have been killed, and thousands have been arrested in connection with what Iranian officials described as "riots" fomented by the United States and its allies.

Since a fan's death in 2019, Tehran has allowed women in sports stadiums more frequently

In March last year, even though women were allowed to buy tickets for a World Cup qualifier against Lebanon, they were denied entry to Imam Reza stadium in the northeastern city of Mashhad.

A government official at the time blamed "poor management".

Two months earlier, women were able to attend an international match for the first time in almost three years, during a World Cup qualifier against Iraq.

One-fifth of the 10,000 tickets were exclusively for women during that match, ISNA news agency reported at the time.

Since in was established in 1979, the Islamic republic has generally only allowed a limited number of women on rare occasions to attend football matches and other sports stadiums.

Clerics, who play a major role in decision-making, argue women must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.

- FIFA warning -

The match was also rare for the Russian national team, suspended from competitions for the Ukraine war

World football's governing body FIFA, which has been pushing for years for Iran to open its stadiums to women, ordered it in September 2019 to allow access to stadiums without restrictions.

The FIFA directive, threatening Iran's suspension from competitions, followed the death of a fan, Sahar Khodayari, who had set herself on fire in fear of being jailed after trying to attend a match in disguise.

She had reportedly been detained in 2018 after trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.

Khodayari's death in 2019 sparked an outcry, resulting in calls for Iran to be banned from international tournaments and its matches boycotted.

Tehran has since allowed women in sports stadiums more frequently.

The friendly was Team Melli's first match since Amir Ghalenoei was named their new coach

"I'm extremely happy to be here since it's my first time," Farzaneh, a 27-year-old accountant who asked to be identified only by her first name, told AFP during Thursday's match.

She said she hoped women "can always come to stadiums, for national team games and also the league".

Some women in the crowd wore red and green face paints, and many put on hats matching Team Melli's colours and waved Iranian flags.

It was the Iranian team's first match since Amir Ghalenoei was named their new coach earlier this month, succeeding Portuguese Carlos Queiroz who left the job after failing to get past the World Cup group stage in Qatar last year.

Thursday's game was also significant as Russia's national team has been suspended by FIFA and European body UEFA from all competitions since February 2022 for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

The suspension saw the Russian team miss out on the Euro 2024 qualifiers which began Thursday.

Tehran has forged strong ties with Moscow in various sectors including the military in the past year.