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Source: DW

Dec 19, 2023

Women attend Tehran derby, but equality fight remains

FIFA hailed the attendance of Iranian women at a recent football derby in Tehran as "progress." Still, a key activist sees the move as a tiny victory in the battle for equal stadium access for women.

By Kalika Mehta

For the first time since the Iranian revolution 44 years ago, women were allowed to attend the Tehran derby. 

FIFA President Gianni Infantino hailed the admittance of 3,000 female football fans into the Azadi Stadium to watch the 1-1 draw between Persepolis FC and Esteghlal FC on Thursday as "progress."

However, for Iranian activist Maryam Shojaei, who founded the #Noban4Women movement, it was a far cry from the victory Infantino and others were celebrating.

"It's true, yes, this is the first time since the revolution that women were able to watch the derby in the stadium," Shojaei told DW.

"The more important thing is that the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) still will not give up control completely. 

"To me, it's a question of ego. Even though they promised to FIFA and everybody that they would allow women to attend football matches freely, it is like somehow they still don't want to accept defeat," she said.

"If you can give 3,000 tickets, they can give more in a stadium with a capacity of more than 78,000."

No victory for women fighting to watch football in Iran

For the women who did attend the derby, it was a special moment that went smoothly.

This came in stark contrast to March 2022, when women were barred from entering the Iranian men's World Cup qualifying game against Lebanon in Mashhad. Video footage later emerged from that game, showing female supporters being pepper-sprayed outside the stadium.

But while women were welcomed into the stadium in Tehran, they were forced to enter through a separate entrance from the men and sit in a cordoned-off section.

"I'm not announcing victory," Shojaei said. "Of course, it was moving. I saw a picture of an old woman covering her body with a flag of her favorite team. After decades, she was able to go to the stadium.

"But we want what happens around the world, even in another Arab Muslim country like Saudi Arabia and other countries, where tickets are sold equally (to men and women)." 

Part of this, the activist said, would be for a girl to sit and watch a game with her father. 

"Imagine in that big (Azidi) stadium that you have to go and watch the match on one side of the stadium, and your father is on the other side."

Thoughts with those who couldn't be there

Shojaei noted that while the campaigning of her and other Iranian activist groups had borne fruit just three months ago, she had still been writing letters to FIFA calling on them to enforce their own laws.

In 2019, football's governing body called on Iran to allow women into stadiums per the rules the FFIRI accepts as a member of FIFA. The alternative would have been to face a ban from international competition.

While the FFIRI may have complied with the rules on paper, they have continued to make excuses for excluding female fans at football matches — a difficult pill for Shojaei to swallow.

"For me personally, it's not just about the sport, it's about standing (up) for your rights," she said.

A small number of female fans were allowed to attend a Persepolis FC Champions League match in 2022Image: Mohammad Karamali/DeFodi Images/picture alliance

"It was a bittersweet experience watching those (women and girls) go to the stadium because I also think of all those, like Jina Mahsa Amini, who have died. And Sahar Khodayari (known as "the blue-haired girl") couldn't go there and watch the derby, and she was a big fan of one of those teams.

"Others, too, have paid the price. One girl is in exile in Turkey only because of trying to [go] to the stadium many times. She had to leave the country as if she had committed a crime," Shojaei said. "So I'm happy, but at the same time, I thought about all the lost time (spent fighting for the right to attend a football match) and all the women who were not there."

Movement on stadium ban indicative of a changing Iran

International scrutiny of the treatment of women has died down more than a year since Jina Mahsa Amini died in custody after being arrested by the Iranian "morality police" for incorrectly wearing her hijab.

However, Shojaei says that women continue to engage in active resistance, even if they do so out of view of the rest of the world. 

Describing a picture of a young girl who attended the Tehran derby, she spoke with pride of a fan wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt and a woolly hat that left much of her hair showing.

"Girls inside Iran who are not even activists, just football fans, show up outside the stadiums for every game," she said, noting that the fight against the ban on attending football is just one part of a broad movement of civil resistance.

Another issue is the mandatory wearing of the hijab, which, Shojaei believes, the government is not willing to relent on for fear that this might open the door to other demands from Iranian women.

"If you walk the streets of Iran, you see there is resistance. There are millions of Iranian women in every single corner of Iran who don't cover their hair anymore," which Shojaei described as "one of the biggest joys of my life."

"I'm witnessing history," she said. "Seeing these young teenagers gives me lots of energy and makes me proud of being (an) Iranian woman."

Edited by Chuck Penfold

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