For the first time in years, Iranian female football fans were allowed to cheer for their favorite teams at the Tehran Football Derby – a match between famous rivals Esteghlal and Persepolis –on December 14 at the Azadi Stadium.
“Azadi” means freedom in Persian, but for nearly four decades, women and girls were banned from games in stadiums. They were threatened, detained, and even jailed for trying to cheer their favorite teams in person.
Since the current league began, Iranian authorities have allocated a limited number of seats to women. According to local papers, in this game 3,000 seats of the 87,000 seat stadium were allocated to women and girls in remote areas, an apparent cap on attendance.
Over the past four decades, Iranian authorities have banned girls and women from watching football and other sports in stadiums. While this ban is not a law, authorities regularly enforced it, claiming lack of proper infrastructure to segregate men and women. The ban has led to arrests, beatings, detention, and abuses against women and adolescent girls.
In September 2019, a female football fan, Sahar Khodayari, who became known as the “Blue Girl” for the color of her favorite team, was reportedly sentenced to jail for trying to enter a stadium. She died by self-immolation in front of Tehran’s revolutionary court.
In October 2019, after FIFA, football’s governing body, finally set a deadline for Iran to allow women and girls stadium access, the government permitted a limited number to attend a World Cup qualifier match. Since then, the Iranian government has used various tactics to restrict the number of women and girls at stadiums.
For more than 15 years, Iranian women campaigned against the stadium ban. They also called out FIFA’s failure to use its influence on the Iranian Federation to end the discriminatory ban.
The cause was eventually adopted by athletes and male sports fans. In a popular 2022 video circulated on social media, male football fans in Iran’s Isfahan football stadium sang together, “There is no difference between men and women. We all love football.”
This win for female fans may be small, and does not begin to address the mountain of abuse and discrimination women face daily in Iran. But this hard-fought achievement is only testament to the resilience of Iranian women and activists who have shown time again that they are essential stakeholders in the transition to a right-respecting society.