When Iran beat Cambodia 14-0 in its home qualifier for the 2022 Qatar World Cup last night, only one corner of Tehran’s stadium cheered. A small section, ringed with metal fencing, was packed full of jubilant Iranian women, sporting painted faces and national flags. Hundreds more queued up outside. It was a pocket of celebration in a nearly empty stadium. Because for the first time in four decades, Iran had allowed women to buy tickets to a match.
It was too late for Sahar Khodayari. Almost a month ago to the day, the young Iranian woman died in hospital after setting herself on fire after discovering that she might be facing a six-month prison sentence for trying to sneak into a match. She died a week later from her injuries.
Fifa, the world’s football governing body, hailed yesterday’s move as “a real moment for change”, following increased pressure on the Iranian government and football federation to end Iran’s ban on women watching men’s sporting events. But Amnesty International has called it a “cynical publicity stunt”.
We’ll tell you what’s true. You can form your own view.
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Out of a possible 78,000 seats in the Azadi stadium, only about 3,500 tickets were designated for women. They sold out within minutes. Female photographers were refused accreditation and many women were denied a ticket, even though most of the stadium was empty. Human Rights Watch told The Independent that it was a “token gesture meant to appease Fifa”.
Maryam Shojaei, a long-time activist against the stadium ban and the sister of the Iranian captain, tweeted a picture of the women’s section in the Azadi Stadium, surrounded by photoshopped bars. She wrote: “This is not what we fought for.”
Despite years of petitioning, as well as founding the #NoBan4Women movement promoting women’s rights to attend sports matches in Iran, Shojaei has never been allowed to see her brother play in her home country. She blames Fifa’s years of inaction for the death of Khodayari.
Now, Shojaei tells The Independent: “Fifa is trying to tell us they’ve solved this issue because for the first time women are able to go to the stadium, but there is still discrimination. Limiting the tickets for women, and treating them completely differently to men, is discrimination.
“Fifa is trying to take credit for this, it’s bragging about this issue, but it’s the activists that have been putting pressure on them.”
She says: “If they took us activists more seriously, if they took the whole situation more seriously, then what happened wouldn’t have happened to this poor girl.”
Iran is the only country in the world where women can be punished for entering a stadium. Iranian women have been banned from attending men’s sports events since 1981, after the Islamic Revolution overthrew the corrupt but comparatively progressive monarchy in 1979. Many hard-won rights for women were rolled back, the hijab was enforced, and the regime’s morality police decreed that watching men play football in shorts would promote promiscuity. The ban is not written into law, but it is enforced – ruthlessly.
Women have increasingly and sometimes openly dressed as men to get into the stadiums and cheer on their favourite teams. They call themselves “the bearded ladies”. Police regularly stop or beat them, and women can be arrested just for standing outside. In 2006, Jafar Panahi directed a film about women trying to watch the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain. Offside, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, was banned from being screened in Iran, despite being shot there.
In real life, a group of women protested outside the stadium during the 2005 qualifier. They formed a movement called Open Stadiums, a group of Iranian women fighting gender discrimination and the stadium ban in particular. They have written consistently to Fifa, pleading for help.
Fifa has written in its constitution (Article 4 of the Statutes) that discrimination on the grounds of gender is “strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion”. Iran have not been suspended, or expelled, but the ban has persisted.
Moya Dodd, an eminent Australian lawyer and former national football player, was elected vice president of the Asian Football Confederation in 2009 and joined Fifa’s executive committee in 2013 as a co-opted member. She was only the third woman ever to do so.
In November 2013, she was invited to go to Iran and give a talk at a conference that the federation was holding.
Dodd, who is no longer on the Fifa council or AFC executive committee and therefore does not speak for either, tells The Independent: “When I tweeted that I was going to Iran, I got an almost immediate response telling me that women weren’t allowed in the Iranian stadiums, and that since I was from Fifa, could I fix it? Obviously that was quite a challenge.”
Part of the problem, she explains, is that the ban is not formal law or regulation. “It’s not even written down. But it’s very real. The punishments and the beatings and the arrests are very real. So how do you stop that happening?”
In general, enforcement rules in sports governance is a complex issue – not least because governing bodies are member-based organisations. Members can only be punished insofar as members are collectively happy to punish themselves. Gender discrimination is widely practised throughout the sports world, despite the statutes of these governing bodies – rarely with consequences.
When asked why Fifa has never suspended Iran, Shojaei says: “Because that’s politics. They are dealing with the whole system. Iran is one of the member countries of Fifa and it doesn’t want to disappoint Iran. Inside Iran, they’ve tried to ignore the pressure from Fifa as if nothing happened, and they’ve limited it to 4,000 because they want to say that if we are doing this, we’re doing it on our own. It’s a question of ego, because they said a firm ‘no’ for four decades and now they have to give up.”
But Dodd explains that, aside from the long and imprecise chain of influence, it’s not at all clear to outsiders which person or entity has the authority to lift this ban. She says: “At the end of the day, whose decision even is it? Who has to change their mind in order to fix this? Is it the ayatollah? The military? Conservative forces? Who are they? Who do you go to – and what will make them change their mind?”
There are rumblings of support for lifting the ban in the Iranian cabinet, but the morality police, controlled by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have stood firm. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, Iran’s prosecutor-general, is adamant that it is a sin for women to go to the stadium and see “half-naked men”.
Dodd figured that the then-president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, would be a good place to start. He too was attending the conference in Iran – a very significant move, to have global figures visiting a country so affected by sanctions.
The women’s stadium ban wasn’t seemingly on Fifa’s radar at the time, until Dodd raised it with Blatter. He then spoke to political authorities in Iran, and mentioned it in his press conference, which made global news. Many women went to the stadium the following week, because they thought that if Blatter had publicly urged authorities to lift the ban, they would be granted entry. They were disappointed.
Then in 2015, Fifa was finally forced to face its own endemic corruption, ending in crisis for the organisation. Indictments were issued, the Fifa offices were raided, arrests were made, and numerous officials were subsequently banned – including Blatter.
One positive result of the Fifa scandal was an acceptance that reform was necessary for the organisation’s survival. Dodd herself submitted gender reform proposals, which were partially accepted in February 2016. Fifa strengthened its wording on equality and, for the first time, expressly stated its commitment to respecting all human rights. It even appointed its own human rights advisory board.
Blatter was replaced by Gianni Infantino. (Infantino declined an interview with The Independent for this story.) The secretary general, Jérôme Valcke, was also implicated in the scandal, found guilty of misconduct and barred from football for 12 years. He was replaced by Fatma Samoura, the first ever female secretary general. With her appointment, she said, the glass ceiling had been broken. Meanwhile, ongoing campaigns by activists in Iran helped to raise the pressure. The stage was set for change.
The new president, Infantino, prepared to discuss the constitutional dilemma a stadium ban on women represented with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani. On 1 March 2018, Infantino joined him in Iran for a football match: the Tehran derby, when the city’s two big teams, Esteghlal and Persepolis, meet. While they were inside, 35 women were arrested trying to get into the stadium. When a journalist asked the sport minister when women would be allowed to attend the matches, a live broadcast was taken off air.
Shojaei says that the next day, Infantino went to Geneva to “brag about how women’s rights had been improved during his presidency”.
She says: “I sent him a letter, the day after, and I said – you were there, you were watching a game when 35 women were arrested, and this is against your human rights and gender discrimination rules.”
Shojaei received a generic electronic response from Fifa, and no response from Infantino. After that, she sent eight more letters to Fifa, every time attaching a petition calling for an end to the stadium ban. At the time, it had more than 200,000 signatures.
In April, a group of human rights organisations launched an international campaign urging Fifa to end the ban before the 2018 men’s World Cup. In June, women flocked to Moscow to watch Iran play, and pressure increased at home. Police argued that they did not have the infrastructure to deal with women coming to the matches, but the interior minister intervened.
On 20 June, for the first time since 1981, women were allowed inside the Azadi Stadium to watch on live TV stream as Iran lost 1-0 to Spain. However, the - reported that many women left early or decided not to go at all due to the hostile police presence.
On 10 November, Infantino was back in Iran for the Asian Champions League final between Persepolis and Japan’s Kashmira Antlers. A select group of 1,000 elite women were also permitted to attend, in a designated “family” section. But it was strictly by invitation only: selected relatives and friends of the regime. According to Dodd, some women in Iran refused to go because they thought they were being used as “shop window dummies”.
Despite many hailing this historic step as progress, Shojaei says: “I was so devastated by that because that day, the Asian federation head and Mr Infantino were both were inside the stadium. We have video of the head of the federation pointing out those seats that the women were sitting in, and so many men told Mr Infantino: this is a lie. The head of the federation is lying to you.
“Mr Infantino released a statement thanking Iran for keeping its promise, but it was absolutely a show. Fifa knows it’s a show but wants to believe it.”
Sahar Khodayari was born circa 1990 in a small village called Salam, in a southwestern province of Iran. She was one of eight children, and her family later moved to Tehran, where she studied for university degrees in English and computer science. She fell in love in Tehran – with Esteghlal, one of Asia’s most popular football clubs.
On 12 March 2019, Khodayari tried to sneak into the Azadi Stadium for the AFC Champions League match between Esteghlal, the Blues, and Abu Dhabi’s Al Ain FC. She was disguised as a man, with a blue hairpiece and a long jacket. Security guards prepared to do body checks on Khodayari. When she resisted, Khodayari was taken to the local police station – ironically, where women have been allowed to work since 2003. Khodayari herself wanted to be a police officer as a child.
Her family, of the middle class, could not afford the extortionate bail. So instead of being detained for a few hours, she was jailed for four days in the notorious Qarchak prison, in the city of Varamin. Her sister would later tell Iranian news outlet Rokna that she was suffering from bipolar disorder, had been under doctor’s supervision for the previous two years, and that her time in jail exacerbated the condition. If she had been taking any medication for her condition, it is unlikely she would have had access to it.
In May, Fifa’s human rights advisory board released their most recent report, highlighting the Iranian stadium ban as an issue. “We’re concerned that despite this being a situation of continuing harm,” it wrote, “Fifa has not taken action in line with our recommendations.”
By June, the women’s World Cup was garnering more international attention than ever before. On 6 June, the day before it began, a number of women were barred from entering the Tehran stadium to watch a friendly men’s match between Iran and Syria. Witnesses say many were physically assaulted. An activist, who does not want to be named for safety reasons, was stopped by authorities for taking photos outside the stadium. She tells The Independent that her sister came out of the car to help, and was beaten. Both were detained.
Activists and lawyers got word to Infantino, who was in Paris with a Fifa delegation for the start of the women’s World Cup, about what had happened to the activist. In response, Infantino sent a letter to the president of the Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI) requesting a timeline for women to be able to buy tickets to the qualifying Iranian matches.
In the letter, he wrote: “I would be very grateful if you could inform Fifa, at your earliest convenience but no later than 15 July 2019, as to the concrete steps which both the FFIRI and the Iranian state authorities will now be taking in order to ensure that all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so will be allowed to buy tickets and to attend the matches of the qualifiers for the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, which will start in September 2019.”
The Iran federation president, Mehdi Taj, replied to Infantino saying that “the matter has been taken up directly with the minister of sports and youth” – which Fifa claimed as a win for progress and gender equality. The letter did not set out any consequences should Iran fail to take action by September.
On 16 August, four women were arrested and detained for sneaking into a match dressed as men, including prominent women’s rights activist Zahra Khoshnavaz and photojournalist Forough Alaei. Khoshnavaz is a well-known advocate of lifting the ban, and has attended matches in baggy clothes and a fake beard to see Persepolis play. Since her actions circulated on social media, the club has taken to calling her before matches to check that she won’t be attending due to the danger. Just months before, Alaei had won first prize in the World Press Photo contest for her work showing female football fans trying to enter the stadium. She called it “Crying for Freedom”.
The women, known locally as the “Azadi Girls” or “Liberation Girls”, were held overnight in a police office in Tehran, before being transferred to Qarchak prison. They were only released once their families each posted a bond of 500,000,000 rial (about £12,000). The Iranian federation took no steps in support of the women. A spokesman, Amir Mehdi Alavi, said: “If these arrests really took place, they have nothing to do with the IFF.”
Fifa released a statement saying that it was “aware of reports” that several women were arrested and later released on bail, and that it was “closely following this matter”. “Generally speaking,” it continued, “Fifa calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the ban.”
On 1 September, Khodayari went to the Islamic Revolutionary Court of Tehran, to retrieve her phone and belongings. It was widely reported that she overheard one of the authorities saying she could face at least six months in prison if she was convicted. She came outside, poured petrol all over her body, and set herself on fire.
Almost the entire surface of her skin was severely burnt. While she was in hospital, her prison sentence was reportedly confirmed (although Gholam Hossein Ismaili, spokesman of Judicial System of Iran, called this an untrue rumour). She died a week later. She was 29.
In death, she became the Blue Girl of Iran, in honour of the colour of her team. Her name, and #BlueGirl, spread all over social media. High profile footballers and international clubs proclaimed their outrage and support. The hashtag #BanIRSportsFederations called for Islamic regime sports to be banned from world competitions. The Open Stadiums Twitter account was flooded with messages.
Esteghlal’s unofficial English Twitter account tweeted: “Our dear Sahar burnt herself to death, when she was charged to 6 month in jail for … going to the stadium to support her #Esteghlal. She supported us despite the politics made it illegal for her, but what we do can do to support her? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We are cowards.” They later played in jerseys printed with the words “Blue Girl”, despite warnings from the government.
Parvaneh Salahshouri, a reformist politician and head of the cross-factional all-female parliamentary group in the Iranian parliament, which advocates for women’s rights, said Iranian men had deprived women of “the most basic rights”, adding: “We are all responsible for the imprisonment and burning of Sahars of this land.”
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, tweeted: “Gianni Infantino has not applied #Fifa #HumanRights policy to stop these abuses. It was predictable decades of women protesting #Iran’s stadium ban could end in catastrophe.”
Fifa released a statement expressing their condolences, reiterating their call on Iranian authorities to “ensure the freedom and safety of any women” engaged in the fight to end the stadium ban. It said that it would send officials to Iran to assess preparations for the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches.
There has been some disparity in how the Iranian authorities have handled Khodayari’s death. To calm public outrage, officials showed up at her mourning ceremony. But when prominent actress Saba Kamali posted on Instagram about the Blue Girl, and very indirectly alluded to her treatment – a post she took down hours later – a warrant was issued for her arrest (according to a news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps). Authorities were said to have found the post insulting.
There is, as there always is, a wider geopolitical context. There has been a notable crackdown in Iran on journalists and social activists, driven by fear of the public’s anger at economic hardship. Four journalists and three labour rights activists were jailed in September alone. There is also fear that the US could exploit this anger, even though the Trump administration has directly contributed to it via increased sanctions. Iran’s response by cracking down on their own people is seen as a show of strength and defiance.
Despite the restricted sale of tickets to women, there has still been hardline opposition and protests against the ban. But Dodd says of the conservative backlash: “Who are these invisible opponents? How do you manage a backlash – if you’re Fifa or if you’re Human Rights Watch, or if you’re a well-meaning supporter from afar, how do you guard against a backlash with an invisible opponent? It takes those with deep insights into the country and its systems, those with years of experience in dealing with these challenges, to do that best.”
Dodd adds: “Fifa is the single most influential entity outside Iran that can make a difference to this issue. I’m sure they will see this as a win, but we all know that it’s a small and long overdue step forward – and a long, long way from the last step.”
It is still not safe for Shojaei to return to Iran. It is also not known how many other women may still be facing charges for trying to watch football. In an op-ed for The New York Times yesterday, she wrote: “Azadi means ‘freedom’ in Farsi – and when all women are allowed to freely attend matches, the stadium will finally be worthy of its name.”