Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian regime has banned women and girls from entering football stadia. In response, a determined group of female activists operating under the name Open Stadiums have sought to challenge this unfair policy. FSE and the Sports Rights Alliance have backed them from the beginning.

On 23rd October, 2019, we spoke to one of these activists, Sara, about the current situation and opportunities for progress.

FSE: Women have been banned from entering Iranian stadia for more than 40 years—but last month, the regime allowed them to enter the Azadi Stadium to watch the men’s national team play Cambodia. What are your thoughts on this move?

Sara: I’ve been waiting to enter a football stadium since 2005. I’ve been fighting for it for years, so when you’re told you’re allowed to enter after so long, it’s not something that provokes too much excitement. The truly exciting thing is the realisation that the pressure we’ve brought to bear is finally having an impact. And because the economic situation is so acute, it’s great to see people—women—enjoying watching football, one of the few activities that brings a smile to people’s faces. That was nice to see.

FSE: What were your expectations before the match and how did the experience relate to those expectations?

Sara: That’s a really good question. We had been told so many times before that this would happen, but in the end, it didn’t, so I was afraid of two things before the match: first, that hardliners would do something to make the federation prevent women from entering; and second, that an incident would take place that would make women fear for their safety and put them off attending.

On the Monday before the match, a group of hardliners demonstrated in front of the parliament building, so the situation was uncertain. But the demonstrators were so few in number that it had no effect on the decision. This was a good sign.

One day before the match, however, they announced that men and women would have to enter the stadium at different gates. This prevented families and friends from attending together.

Also, we were sure that they only decided to let women into the stadium because it was an unimportant match and only a few people were expected to attend. I mean, the final score was 14-0. If this had been an important match, how would they have handled it?

In the end, it was disappointing to see such a high number of deployed police officers. There was a lot of surveillance, with cameras and polices forces watching you closely. I felt a bit like a prisoner. For example, there was a chant about the Blue Girl, the one who set herself on fire because of her treatment after she was imprisoned for trying to sneak into a football stadium. Suddenly the police said: “Don’t make this political, you should be grateful that you can enter today! If you give us a hard time, maybe next time you will stay outside!” I was annoyed. The Blue Girl is not about politics; she was just a girl who wanted to go to football. There were discussions until the end of the match and there is a video of a football official ripping down a banner dedicated that was dedicated to her.

At the same time, there was a lot of excitement among the women, among the children. You could see the joy. And one funny story: usually, when you go to football matches, all photographers are positioned around the field. This time, they were in a row in front of the women’s section. It showed how important this fight is.

FSE: An allocation of 3,000 for women in a 100,000 seater stadium. Do you consider this to be progress? 

Sara: In the beginning, it didn’t bring me a lot of joy. A stadium this big with so few tickets for women?

And the ticket distribution was annoying. Usually, there is one website that offers the tickets. I was checking the website constantly. Suddenly, the Friday, early morning, before the match, another website appeared that sold the tickets to women, but there was no announcement of this website at all. I noticed on my Twitter feed that people were tweeting about it. Maybe someone working for the second website leaked it. The first section for women was sold out in under two hours. Many posted their excitement and pictures of their tickets on social media. That was nice, they were so emotional, they had waited for so long! The next morning, they released tickets for another women’s section. Still, many people who didn’t know waited for the original website and in the end were disappointed. That was annoying, painful and disrespectful. Men were able to buy tickets the whole time, easily, and for whatever seats they wanted. But, you know, when you live in such a climate, such a country, you try not to let them ruin you joy. We still try to have a good life.

FSE: As we understand it, despite the exception made for last month’s game, the ban has not been permanently lifted. Could you shed some light on the current situation? 

Sara; We are not sure about the future. Personally, I think women will be allowed into the World Cup qualifying matches, for matches like this one. But there will be important matches coming up, and we’re not sure if this will continue because there will be lots of interested people. Besides, the most important matches in Iran are the league matches. Whenever women tried to sneak into the stadium disguised as men, it was for league matches. The most joyful matches of the years should also be opened to women. This match has been opened because of the public pressure. We need to keep up the pressure. We will not be satisfied by one single game or the qualification matches.

FSE: There were security concerns before the match—match-going women have been threatened by religious fundamentalists, for instance. What are your thoughts on the safety of women around the stadium and on the terraces?

Sara: On this match day, nothing happened. Security was organised well. Plus, there was a lot of police controlling the situation. It really depends on the further development. These hardliners have a big mouth and they are very vocal, but when it comes to lots of women wanting to go, and there is a permission from the Supreme Leader’s office, hardliners couldnot  do anything about it This time, they had probably known since summer that women would be allowed to go and the police even tried to facilitate everything and were nice. However, if the government decides that women can’t go, it will be dangerous for us.

FSE: What must be done to ensure a safe, secure, and enjoyable experience at the stadium for Iranian women?

Sara: The most important thing is that stadiums are family friendly. Everyone should be able to go. It should be the people’s choice if they want to go, not the government’s of FIFA’s.

If you have a look at other social events, like concerts, security is fine and we don’t see that kind of separation, but when it comes to the stadiums, there is resistance. It has been important for women to enter the stadium, but they were resistant. They wanted to control everything. Otherwise, it’s simple: the crowd was small; they are used to handling much larger groups and crowds.

FSE: What would you like to tell FIFA and the Iranian Football Association?

Sara: There are no talks with the federation. They are the reason for our long ban. But when it comes to FIFA, I met Infantino and I told him everything—for example, how we were waiting for progress, how difficult life is for activists, how we are constantly called in for interrogation, how they put us in prison, how the tragedy of the Blue Girl took place. They should have done something a long time ago. They’ve known about this since 2006 or 2007. We didn’t have social media back then so we printed and mailed all our evidence to them. After 2009, after the Green Movement and the new security measures, we couldn’t work on our topic. And FIFA said nothing. We, as women, sacrificed a lot and FIFA knew about this. In Iran, we protest, but we are vulnerable to the state: they put us in prison. But the people who govern are FIFA. They have to help us and do their job.

FIFA eventually applied pressure, but I don’t want them to stop here. They have made some statements recently, some of them outrageous, but one said “A stadium should be open, for all matches, for everyone.” I liked that statement. That’s exactly what we want.

FSE: What’s next?

Sara: For me, there are more steps. This match was a new beginning. Many had fears, but for the first time they experienced joy at a football match. Now, we have to talk with FIFA, we can’t let them get away, and wait and wait. Security-wise, it is very difficult to protest in Iran. We have to find more ways to show our disagreement. We need strategic planning to see more impact from and less damage to our activists.

FSE: How can European fans support you?

Sara: I have to say, we have already received lots of support, especially during the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This year, after the tragedy of Blue Girl, there were many fans holding posters and banners at their own clubs, defending Iranian women’s rights. We want to really thank this family of fans. The joy of football comes from us fans. If we are not there, football will lose its status as the world’s most popular and wealthy sport.

Please don’t forget us and don’t think we are now free to do what everybody else can do. We are only at the beginning. Keep us in mind and please follow our story.

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