Femena condemns in the strongest terms the violence used by Iranian police to prevent women from entering Imam Reza Football Stadium in the city of Mashhad to attend the soccer match between Iran and Lebanon on March 29, 2022. In order to avoid retaliation by FIFA, Iran had committed to end the highly discriminatory and contested practice of banning women from sports stadiums, but for years authorities have defied this commitment, every time citing one excuse or another for their failure to allow women into stadiums. On March 29, women who had purchased tickets in advance for the Iran-Lebanon soccer match, were prevented from entering the stadium through use of violence and pepper spray. The refusal of Iranian authorities to allow women into stadiums is in direct contradiction to its commitment to FIFA and its own citizens.
For over four decades now, Iranian women from all walks of life have been forced into a difficult and long struggle aimed at realizing their most basic rights and demands, including an end to the ban on women entering stadiums for sports games. Instead of being accountable and responsive to the long-standing demand of their citizens, Iranian authorities have consistently chosen to dismiss the call by claiming that the environment at football games and within stadiums is unsuitable for women and the demand reflects the desires of a limited group of women. The demand to end the ban on women attending soccer matches in stadiums was first expressed in an organized manner by women’s rights activists in 2005, nearly 20 years ago. These women’s rights defenders, who wore white scarves and came to be known by the same name launched a campaign and held a peaceful demonstration in front of Azadi (Freedom) Stadium in Tehran, demanding to be let into the stadium. After insistence and resistance, the White Scarves activists managed to ensure the entrance of dozens of women into the stadium on that day.
As the demand for ending the ban on women’s attendance of soccer matches in stadiums became more popular and grew louder, FIFA too was forced to take a position in 2019 on the issue and demanded that Iranian officials allow women to attend soccer matches or face suspensions from competitions.
Continued Backlash against Women
The fear of being disqualified for World Cup games in Qatar in 2022, forced Iranian officials to announce that 2000 seats would be made available for women to attend the match between Iran and Iraq on January 27, 2022. The announcement was made only two days prior to the match, but the online sales site for tickets remained inaccessible until the morning of the soccer match, which according to Iranian officials, was due to an internet disruption. According to officials, 1500 women managed to attend the Iran-Iraq match. But many speculate that those who did manage to attend the soccer match were selected by Iranian officials, a belief that is largely supported by witnesses at the event and by pictures of the event.
In the recent match between Iran and Lebanon in Mashhad on March 29, the issue was no longer one of selective inclusion of women in stadiums, rather women who had purchased tickets online to attend the soccer match were not allowed into the stadium. When the women began protesting this action, police violently attacked them, spraying their faces with pepper spray. The pictures and videos published depict police violently attacking women, youth and even young girls waiting to enter the Imam Reza Stadium. The incident has resulted in widespread anger among Iranians on social media. For the first time, even more conservative individuals and media outlets, normally aligned with State policies, have also been critical and outspoken against the behavior of the police, spurred in part because many of the women attacked outside the stadium in Mashhad were dressed conservatively and were fully veiled.
In response to these criticisms, the Iranian Football Federation issued a statement claiming that only 9 women had tried to purchase tickets for the men’s section and blamed the ugly turn of events on profiteers who tried to take advantage of the situation by selling counterfeit tickets.
While strongly condemning the violence used by police against female football fans, Femena urges FIFA to use all legal means at its disposal to force Iranian authorities to end their longstanding ban against women entering stadiums and facilitate their active, equal and free presence in stadiums to watch football matches as well as other sports games.
At a time when the Iranian authorities continue to repress women and deny them their most basic of rights, it is up to international institutions to identify and employ strategies designed to force Iranian sports authorities to be accountable, to allow women in stadiums and ensure that those responsible for committing violence against women are held legally accountable and face appropriate consequences.