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This summer, as I was watching the thrilling Women's World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan, I got a direct message via Twitter from my friend, Sara. (Names of activists in Iran have been changed for the protection.) She was elated to be able to watch the match, too—she lives in Iran and was unable to watch much of the tournament. We chatted briefly about the match. I told Saher I was fortunate enough to have attended some of the matches at Lansdowne Stadium, in Ottawa, with my niece and my daughter. "I wish one day I can watch in a stadium," wrote Sara.
Sara's message made my heart ache. Her words were laced with sadness from injustice, a feeling I know, even in Canada. For years, FIFA's ban on hijab denied me, along with millions of other women, any chance of playing football. Enduring that ban was painful, unnecessary and kept me from fully enjoying the sport I played for decades. The beautiful game is a huge part of my identity. It has inspired and invigorated me, and I was kept from playing. Yet, I had the freedom of attending matches in person.
Sara lives in Iran, which since the 1979 revolution has banned women from attending sporting events at stadiums around the country. Hardline clerics insist that it is inappropriate to have women at matches, where they would unnecessarily be mixing with men outside their families, where the male players wear shorts, and where, the clerics say, there is often vulgar language and behaviour. Nonetheless, non-Iranian women are allowed to support visiting teams in Iran, and have freely attended games—one of the things that has made the ban more unbearable for those subject to it.
For decades the ban focused largely on football stadiums (the most popular sport in Iran), but women were allowed to congregate and watch matches in public squares, which became popular during the 2010 World Cup. In 2012, before the EURO Cup, Iran extended the ban to include wrestling and volleyball matches and any area or stadium. Since then, men and women have been prohibited from watching matches together in public spaces, cafes, or restaurants.
"No one should be able to eliminate half the nation from public places," Sara later emailed me. "But without any change to the law, they will not let us attend."
To bar women from stadiums in a sports-loving country like Iran is a form of exclusion so perverse that it has propelled much action. Open Stadiums (also known as White Scarves) started in 2005 to draw attention to gender inequalities in sport and lobby against women being kept from public stadiums, and Sara has been a central figure in Tehran for the organization since the beginning. The activists of Open Stadiums organize petitions and lobby international sporting federations for support. At home in Tehran, when posters and placards have been restricted, they have resorted to printing the political messages onto their white headscarves to avoid any fracas with police. In 2009, Iranian laws on public protests tightened, and Open Stadiums and their allies went online and expanded their advocacy efforts. Identities of organizers in Iran are protected due to danger of persecution.
The issue has even been the subject of films like 'Offside' (2006) by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The critically acclaimed movie portrays the fictional struggles of six young female football fans who are prevented from attending a World Cup Match and are eventually detained. Panahi made the film hoping it would "push the limits in Iran and help women." Almost ten years later, Iranian women are still not free to enter Azadi Stadium.
An Iranian soccer fan watching a match in 2006—not much has changed for women since then. Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
On June 20, 2014, British-Iranian student Ghoncheh Ghavami got ready to protest at Azadi (which means 'freedom' in Farsi), which was hosting a men's volleyball match. She was detained by Iranian authorities, and after 100 days of solitary confinement, she was sentenced to one year in prison. The case was a slap in the face to sports, athletes, and fans, and it grabbed the attention of major media outlets and Amnesty International; a petition for her release collected over 730,000 signatures. President Ary Graca of the Federation International du Volleyball (FIVB) issued a strong statement last November: "We never normally seek to interfere with the laws of any country. But in accordance with the Olympic Charter, the FIVB is committed to inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis." The charges against Ghavami were finally dropped in April, and she returned to the United Kingdom.
Days later, deputy Sports Minister Abdolhamid Ahmad declared that Iran would allow women into stadiums. There had been small steps from government officials to address the stadium ban before this year. In 2006, for example, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a football fan, wrote to Iran's Physical Education Organization and implored them to allow women into stadiums. He unsuccessfully argued that women would improve the atmosphere at stadiums and welcome a more family-friendly space. Ahmadinejad did not have any support from FIFA at the time.
The April announcement of the stadium ban reversal coincided with the news of a breakthrough in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Activists were hopeful that real progress had been made. Yet, women were still denied entry into Azadi Stadium to watch the six international matches hosted by the Iranian Volleyball Federation this summer. Despite pressure from Open Stadiums, FIVB did not comment further. Any politicized reasoning for keeping women from sport is enraging; more frustrating is international governing bodies of the sport who just release press releases and then disappear—or heads of federations whose disingenuous comments do not help.
Iranian women have a few allies among the higher ranks of the international sports. Moya Dodd, a FIFA executive committee member, is a tireless advocate for women in football.
As vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which has jurisdiction over Iran, Dodd is perhaps in a strongest position to put more pressure on Iran to truly open its stadiums. She has met with Iranian activists multiple times in recent years, including with a member of Open Stadiums during this year's Women's World Cup.
"Football is the most popular sport in the world, and it plays a big role in setting the behavioural norms in society," Dodd wrote in an e-mail. "Excluding women from enjoying it as a live spectacle is not only unfair to those women as individuals, it's not only unfair to the game of football to reduce its audience, it's not only unfair to the development of women's football because women can't witness and learn from watching the those games - but the message it sends is that it's also acceptable to exclude us from society's mainstream activities. And that is a fundamental breach of human rights."
Dodd was instrumental in lobbying FIFA after Iran women's national football team suffered a heartbreaking disqualification for wearing hijabs in 2011, and was unable to gain a place in the Women's World Cup. That prompted a two-year campaign that eventually resulted on FIFA lifting the ban on head-coverings in March 2014.
Sara told me that Iranian feminists are in regular contact with Dodd and grateful for the solidarity she has provided. Working with grassroots activists is crucial in order to accomplish goals set by Open Stadiums.
The stadium ban, amazingly, has not prevented Iranian women from competing and winning in major international tournaments. (Uniform permitting, that is: while FIFA officially lifted its ban on hijabs, similar rules in other sports still keep Iranian women from participating in all sorts of competitions around the world.) That women are encouraged to play and win medals under the Iranian flag but not allowed to watch live sport in public spaces in their own country is a hypocrisy that occasionally creates awkward moments for Iran's leaders. During the 2014 Asian Games, the President Hassan Rouhani tweeted out his unwavering support for the women of Team Iran, which was met with disdain and sarcasm from the fans. But there is plenty of evidence that women's sports are growing in Iran. This year, the women's soccer team entered the AFC U19 Championships, and last month the Wall Street Journal published a piece detailing how these days there are more about the more than 4,000 women and girls playing in various leagues in Iran. That is up from zero in 2005—yes, zero.
Niloufar Ardalan, here celebrating a goal in 2012, was not allowed to travel with her team to a futsal championship this summer. Photo by Jose Coelho/EPA
However, there are still numerous obstacles for Iran's women athletes. Niloufar Ardalan, known as 'Lady Goal', is one of Iran's most spectacular female footballers. Iran was scheduled to attend the Asian Football Federations Futsal Championship in Malaysia, but Ardalan was not permitted to go. According to a certain Islamic law strongly enforced in Iran, women may not travel without the permission of a male relative, and Ardalan told Persian news agency nasimonline that her husband, sports journalist Mahdi Toutounchi, refused to give this permission and sign paperwork to update her passport. Instead, he insisted that she be present for their seven-year-old son's first day of school.
"I understand it's a law but our national team needs me and I want our team win the games," Ardalan told Shirzanan Global, an agency advocating for Muslim women in sports. "The government can temporarily exempt professional athletes to participate in international matches. As a woman, mother and a professional athlete of this country, I would like to receive such support. For example, our male champions are exempt from military service."
The basic right of mobility is an issue for all Iranian women, but it's particularly critical to national-level athletes who need to travel to compete in tournaments and competition. If Iranian authorities can not resolve a dilemma of this magnitude, women's sports may suffer. Ardalan's courage to speak publicly of her experience inspired outpourings of support online, but advocating for change means more than just jumping onto a hashtag. Iranian authorities should lobby for all athletes to have fair access, and help mediate when families need to resolve situations such as Ardalan's.
Iran has a sordid history of toying with activists and promising changes which are later reneged. Federations like FIFA, FIVB, and the IOC should demand consistency and transparency. Barring Iran from competitions or penalizing athletes is not the solution. Insisting on equitable policies and that women attend sporting events without fear of arrest or persecution is a more effective means to advocate—more than tweeting and press releases. It would also re-emphasize the principles of fairness and equality that these organizations purport to support, not to mention it would bolster interest and development of major sports for women and girls, something that FIFA, for one, has committed to.
There may be a revolution occurring in Iran women's sport, but there are many battles left to fight. For Sara and millions of other Iranian women, being banned from stadiums is the symbol of their elimination of women from Iranian society at large. Sara insists that the campaigning must continue. "We should not let go and be quiet about our rights, because our lack of rights are starting to become ordinary," she said. "If we keep quiet it will become even harder for feminists to make people recognize gender discrimination. It does not matter if people are educated or not, everyday sexism can be reproduced by anyone and it is important for us to react to them, because it wakes them up, and keeps our objections to discrimination alive."