After the two-week break for the Iranian New Year (March-April), the first piece of news that exploded like a bomb in the Iranian media was the passing of a law allowing women to enter sport arenas by the Security Council. This created a wave of bewilderment among critics of the administration and hard-core religious conservatives. The news was, however, quickly mitigated; President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, said, “It’s not as if women are supposed to go see swimming or wrestling competitions." Molaverdi was essentially saying that while Iran was considering a law to allow women to enter sporting arenas, it would not be applied to all sporting events.
The view of the traditionalist clerics on women even watching sporting events on TV is quite varied. At one point, the leader of Iran said: “Watching wrestling and other sports by ladies, if not meant as a way of seeking pleasure, is not a problem.” There are, however, certain strict religious authorities that hold that even watching a soccer game on TV, because of the shorts worn by the players, might be a problem.
It is a fact that after the 1979 Revolution, the Islamization wave that spread through the country created a gap between women and sports. Women’s sports greatly declined and women were left out of sporting arenas as spectators as well. For years, women could only watch soccer matches through the 14-inch windows of 1980s black-and-white television sets.
Conservative religious authorities in various Islamic countries hold, more or less, similar views toward women’s sports and the presence of female athletes in the arenas. How much their views manage to become a reality is commonly proportional to their position in power, however.
The same limitations for the presence of female spectators in sporting stadiums is the reason why Iran’s chances for hosting the Asian Cup always disappear. Since the time of the Shah, when Iran hosted the Asian Games once, the country has never acted as a host for a serious soccer cup or Asian Olympics. Considering Iran’s Olympic-grade facilities and a 100,000-person soccer stadium, this is the main problem affecting its chances of hosting events. The regulations of the IOC and FIFA have always limited Iran’s chances because of its discriminatory sporting laws. Since the 1990s, Iranian authorities have allowed foreign women to enter Iranian stadiums to support their favorite teams. The main reason given for creating such discriminatory regulations is that the sporting arenas lack a suitable atmosphere for women and families to protect them against vandalism and hooliganism. Supposedly, hooliganism and the use of offensive, sexual language by male spectators during games create an unsafe atmosphere for women, and this is the reason why foreign women, unfamiliar with Persian, are then allowed to attend the stadiums.
The post-2000 generation, however, did not tolerate these limitations, and a few girls, wearing boy’s clothing, actually attended matches of their favorite teams in different stadiums around the country. The first instance of the presence of women in the stadiums goes back to the Iran-Bahrain game during preliminary stages for the 2006 World Cup. Mohammad Khatami, the president of Iran at the time, attended the match, which resulted in Iran’s advancement to the World Cup. "Offside," a film by Jafar Panahi on women’s struggle to be present in sporting arenas, was also filmed during the same game. It also was during this game that four Iranian girls, assisted secretly by Korean women, managed to enter Azadi Stadium.
After this point, the presence of women became a serious challenge between the Iranian sporting federations and their international counterparts. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative president of Iran from 2005-13, allowed women’s presence in the stadiums in June 2006, but backed off from his decision after facing direct opposition by the clergy in Qom.
In August 2008, Mohamed bin Hammam, the head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said the ban on presence of women in stadiums amounts to discrimination and declared that if AFC matches were to take place in Iran, women must be allowed to enter the arenas. In the past few years too, a lot of women have protested the ban. Some have also paid with prison sentences for this demand, such as the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami, the British-Iranian woman who was jailed last year. Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA, also once entered the debate between the government and the Iranian women and in a trip to Tehran, asked President Hassan Rouhani to allow women to enter the sporting arenas.
Saba Sherdoost, a journalist and civil activist and a member of the Society for the Civil Rights of Iranian Women, talked to Al-Monitor about the June 2014 protests organized against the ban on female spectators. She said, “I think the most important cause of the protests was the strong gender bias in these regulations, making it yet another discriminatory regulation against Iranian women. Of course, the discrimination is only against Iranian women, as despite the presence of Brazilian women in the Azadi volleyball stadium, police stopped women from entering the stadium. So, the protests had the general message that women are trying to remove all discriminatory laws, and are not going to stand against any new ones. The other matter was the fact that the Iranian Volleyball Federation was actually going back on its deal with the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB). The FIVB had struck a deal with the Islamic Republic that women would be allowed to attend the games, but the Iranian administrators, based on a bogus law, still prevented women from entering the stadium.”
Sherdoost added that officials had even attempted to deceive the FIVB by bringing “a group of female employees of the Federation posed as spectators.”
With regard to Rouhani, Sherdoost said, “Considering the order of the president now, we are staying positive on the matter. Surely, the removal of the limitations on women’s access to the stadiums would help solve the cultural problems in the stadiums as well, and their absence will not be useful in any way. In fact, it will allow the established culture of shouting insults at the players and the referees to continue.”
On the future of both volleyball and soccer games, Sherdoost said, “The issue of the admittance of women to the football [soccer] stadiums will be more complicated than the volleyball stadiums. As far as I know, the banning of women’s presence is actually part of the internal regulations of the Iranian Football Federation, and changing this part of the internal regulation will require more time than the issue of the volleyball arenas. However, with the energy and persistence that I know Iranian women have, I think this discrimination will soon be removed as well.”
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