By Andrew Warshaw
October 10 – Iran’s World Cup qualifier against Cambodia today is being lauded as a landmark occasion, with women officially allowed to attend a men’s game for the first time in two generations.
The initial allocation of 3,500 tickets for female fans was sold out in under an hour before an additional 1,100 were released for the match at the national Azadi Stadium in Tehran.
The move by the Iranian authorities, however, came only after FIFA threatened sanctions if the country did not end it male-only policy. Iran has banned female spectators from men’s football since the Islamic Revolution, apart from the odd exception involving a few handpicked supporters.
Last month, Gianni Infantino said FIFA “cannot wait any more” for women to be allowed into Iranian stadiums to watch men’s games and that he had been “assured” the authorities would relent ahead of this week’s qualifier.
His comments came shortly after a FIFA delegation visited Iran in the aftermath of the grotesque tragedy of a 29-year-old female fan dying after setting fire to herself.
Sahar Khodayari self-immolated outside a courthouse after being arrested trying to sneak into the Azadi stadium disguised as a man to watch her beloved Esteghlal FC face UAE’s Al Ain in an AFC Champions League match. She was rushed to hospital but later died of her wounds and was immediately dubbed ‘Blue Girl’ after the colours of her favourite team.
While allowing female fans into the stadium marks a significant relaxation of Iran’s hardline stance, it is not a total compliance with the rules. Those women attending the Cambodia game will not be allowed to mix freely with men, with special sections of the stadium set aside under gender segregation.
Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International denounced the decision by Tehran to cap the number of women allowed to attend at 4,600 out of a stadium capacity of 78,000.
Human Rights Watch described the half-hearted move as “discriminatory, deceptive, and dangerous.”
“The effective 5% quota on seats for women contravenes FIFA’s constitution, statutes, and its human rights policy,” the organization said. “Article 4 of its statutes states that discrimination against women ‘is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion’ of the FIFA member.'”
Amnesty said Iran’s compromise was “a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities intended to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Sahar Khodayari’s tragic death”.
But FIFA’s head of education and social responsibility Joyce Cook told the BBC that the pressure would be maintained on Iran.
“It’s not just about one match. We’re not going to turn our eyes away from this,” she said.
“We’re totally focused on making sure women can attend this match on 10 October and working just as pragmatically to ensure women also can attend local matches in league football – but it’s about what follows as well.
” We expect that the access for women into matches is also going to happen in the leagues as well. This is a moment for real change.
“The international community, including world football’s governing body FIFA, must also ensure that women are permitted to attend all matches freely and without discrimination.”
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