On March 6, FIFA president Sepp Blatter called on Iran to end its ban preventing Iranian women from entering soccer stadiums. The message was met with skepticism from the international press, given that Blatter made no threats. Some observers, including prominent Middle Eastern sports scholar James Dorsey, wrote that the call "reeks of opportunism" ahead of the contested FIFA presidential elections. (Full disclosure: I wrote something similar.) Given FIFA's track record with human rights issues, it's more than justified to suspect Blatter of being disingenuous.
However, Darya Safai doesn't see it that way.
During the Iranian student protests in 1999, Safai was a dental student in Tehran. Her husband, also studying dentistry, was a major organizer within the movement. When the government cracked down on the protests, Safai was imprisoned for 24 days in solitary confinement. Her husband, who was in far more danger, fled to Turkey. Safai was temporarily released while she waited for her trial. Rather than wait to be imprisoned for years, she fled to meet her husband in the Turkish border town of Van. Because Iranian forces were after them, they couldn't stay in Van for long. While on the run, Safai's husband was captured by Turkish police and imprisoned in a windowless room with no access to a bathroom.
With everything to lose, Safai called the former president of Iran, Abolhassan Banisadr, who resided in Paris at the time. She begged him to appeal to Belgium, where her husband had previously been a legal resident, to admit the couple as political refugees. Somewhat surprisingly, Belgium agreed. On June 28, 2000, the couple arrived safely in Belgium with no money and dentist degrees nobody would honor.
After earning their Belgian dentistry degrees, Safai and her husband are now successful dentists with clinics in Brussels and Antwerp. "I live a good life," Safai told me over Skype. This would be enough for many people, but not for her. "I cannot forget how difficult the life is [in Iran]."
When she's not performing root canals, Safai spends her time as spokeswoman for the group Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums. Although the group's focus is the sports world, Safai sees the stadium ban as a much broader issue. "The stadium is like a little society. Whenever you put women out of it, it looks like you put women out of society," she said. "And that's what they are doing with us inside the country. So I think we should show that we are not for that and we fight it."
Although FIFA appears opaque and bureaucratic to many outsiders, Safai didn't understand why she should fear it. "Before I started, people told me FIFA is other. It's really hard to go inside. Do you have the courage to do it? Because they're not going to answer. I thought I've got to try it."
After speaking to FIFA Executive Committee members—Safai politely asked they not be named until further progress is made on the issue—the group sent a formal letter to Blatter on February 6.
The letter was signed by more than 200 Iranian academics, activists, and artists, including Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. "The practice of the Islamic Republic of Iran of forbidding women from attending football matches since 1982 has prompted us to appeal to you as the highest authority of FIFA to help lift this unjust ban," the letter read. "Such a policy against women is morally wrong, discriminatory, and runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the FIFA Statutes as well as imperative laws of Switzerland and International Law."
Iran's discrimination against women from entering FIFA-sanctioned matches is clearly in violation of FIFA law, which allows FIFA to punish the violator with suspension or even expulsion. Article Three of FIFA's statutes reads that "discrimination of any kind against a Country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion."
Exactly one month after they sent this letter, Blatter published his appeal to Iran in FIFA Weekly. "I was very pleased and surprised that Sepp Blatter has said such a thing," Safai recalls about seeing Blatter's op-ed. "I think they understand what we are talking about. When Sepp Blatter says it's unbearable, it's something that has touched him. They know very well that they should do something about it because when someone doesn't obey the rules that they have in the committee, they cannot be a member anymore. They are obliged to do something."
In addition to their work with FIFA, the group attends as many Iranian national team sporting events outside the country as possible (Iranian women are free to attend matches in other countries, of course). They have protested with banners and t-shirts at games in Italy and Poland.
And while Blatter's letter holds promise for the future, the group isn't resting until the ban is lifted. Ali Kafashian, the president of the Football Federation of Iran, responded to Blatter's call with a dismissive wave emblematic of the issue in general: "The problem of the women is just something small compared to other problems." On March 31, Safai and her group will travel to Stockholm for the friendly between Iran and Sweden. Safai is thrilled Blatter spoke publicly, but she wants more. She wants threats, sanctions, and punishments if Iran remains in violation of FIFA bylaws. "This is humiliation. It's not something you can accept. We have the right to have all of the human rights. We have the right to have all of what a man has."
It's impossible to know exactly what motivated Blatter to write his op-ed and what will come of it. Maybe Dorsey and other critics were right. Maybe the timing is just a coincidence. But if Safai is right and her letters and protests actually accomplished something, then maybe she can do more. Maybe, just maybe, the ban will one day be lifted.
Given what she's been through, it seems unwise to bet against her. "Lots of people told me 'I don't think you're going to get somewhere.' I told them I'm going to try it. I have nothing to lose but I have a lot to gain."