By Andrew Warshaw
October 11 – It’s a significant and welcome breakthrough for the entire sport but let’s not get too carried away too soon.
Apart from the odd exception when female supporters were handpicked by the authorities, women were officially allowed to watch a men’s game in Iran for the first time since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago on Thursday after FIFA threatened sanctions if the country did not end its male-only policy.
Photos from inside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium showed jubilant female fans waiving Iranian flags and cheering on their team as Iran thrashed Cambodia 14-0.
The initial allocation of 3,500 tickets for female fans was quickly sold out – before an additional 1,100 were released for the World Cup qualifier.
“This is a very positive step forward, and one which FIFA, and especially Iranian girls and women, have been eagerly waiting for,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino.
“The passion, joy and enthusiasm they showed today was remarkable to see and encourages us even more to continue the path we have started. History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey.
“Consequently, FIFA now looks more than ever towards a future when all girls and women wishing to attend football matches in Iran will be free to do so, and in a safe environment. There can be no stopping or turning back now.”
But that is the key. While allowing female fans into the stadium marks a landmark relaxation of Iran’s hardline stance, it is not a total compliance with the rules. Those women attending the Cambodia game were 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 have 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.
FIFA had sent a delegation to Tehran to ensure that women were allowed to attend the game following the death last month of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire to protest against her arrest for trying to watch her favourite club side Esteghlal disguised as a man.
Dubbed “Blue Girl” online to reflect the team’s colours, Khodayari faced being jailed for six months.
“FIFA’s stance on the access of women to the stadiums in Iran has been firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran. For all football matches,” FIFA had said in a previous statement.
But an Iranian government spokesman was quoted as saying: “The number of women attending stadium games will only go up but there is a proviso – they will only do so in so far as authorities are able to maintain Islamic values, maintain public order laws that are in line with Islamic codes of conduct.”
Which doesn’t exactly confirm there will be a carte blanche lifting of the ban despite FIFA’s stance and the hopes of millions of female fans both in the country and worldwide. The real test will be how Iran proceeds in the future in terms of the way it treats women supporters.
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