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Iran: Female fans denied entry to World Cup qualifying match

Despite having bought tickets, hundreds of female football supporters were pepper-sprayed and blocked from entering the stadium in the holy Shia city of Mashhad
Women protest outside the Imam Reza stadium after being denied access to the Iran-Lebanon World Cup qualifier, 29 March 2022 (Screengrab/Twitter)

Hundreds of Iranian women were denied entry to a football stadium in Iran on Tuesday to watch the national team's World Cup qualifying match against Lebanon

A video circulating on social media showed hundreds of female supporters outside the Imam Reza stadium in Mashhad, northeastern Iran, protesting against their inability to attend the game, despite having bought tickets - 2,000 of which had been reserved for women. 

“They said that women can get tickets and enter the stadium. We spent yesterday from 12pm to 8pm on the website in order to purchase tickets," one woman told Iranian media. "All the ladies who are here have tickets. We took leave from work, we spent a lot of money, but now they are saying women can’t enter.”

Translation: If football is not a political sport, then suspend Iranian football because women are not allowed in stadiums

The protests soon escalated, with videos showing women suffering eye injuries after pepper spray attacks by security forces dispersing the crowds. 

Translation: Today, Iranian football-loving women were welcomed with pepper spray in the outdoor area of Imam Reza Stadium! Responsible gentlemen, are you so disgraceful that you are attacking your compatriots who only wanted to watch a football match? Nothing has stood in your way, not even a Fifa ultimatum!

Iranian women have been barred from stadiums since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with officials and religious leaders claiming the ban was necessary to "protect women from men's profanity". 

The prohibition was lifted in 2019, following the self-immolation of a female football fan. Sahar Khodayari died after setting herself alight in protest at her prosecution for attending a match dressed as a man to avoid detection. 

Iranian women have since been permitted to enter stadiums on a limited basis, the most recent game being January's World Cup qualifier between Iran and Iraq, held at the Azadi stadium in Tehran. 

Many were perplexed by the decision to prohibit women from entering the stadium in Mashhad, given that almost 2,000 women had attended the Tehran game two months earlier. 

Translation: With the successful experience of the presence of women in the football match between Iran and Iraq in Tehran, it was expected that in Mashhad, women would be able to watch the football match in the stadium. They bought tickets but got nothing but pepper spray. Who is responsible for this awful situation and the violation of the rights of the people? Who is responsible?

The director of the Razavi Khorasan Province's directorate of youth and sports explained the barring of women from the Iran-Lebanon game by referring to Mashhad's "cultural and religious position in the Islamic and Shia world", adding that allowing women to enter would have caused “some issues to arise”. 

The decision came from Tehran at the last minute, the director added, with the "provincial security council listening and carrying out the orders". 

In a statement, Fifa told Middle East Eye that it had seen reports that women were not allowed entry to the match, and had asked the Iranian Football Federation for more information.

"FIFA's position in relation to the presence of women at football matches in IR Iran is clear: historic progress has been achieved - as exemplified by the milestone in October 2019, when thousands of women were allowed into the stadium for the first time in 40 years, and more recently when some women were allowed again at the FIFA World Cup qualifier match in Tehran in January - and FIFA expects this to continue, as there can be no turning back."

'Vulgar'

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's representative in Mashhad, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, had previously stated that women's presence as spectators at men's sports competitions was "vulgar". 

The Iranian Football Federation expressed "regret over some incidents that occurred on the sidelines of this match", but added that "the necessary infrastructure and suitable conditions for the presence of men and women in a safe and secure environment must be facilitated". 

These conditions usually mean separate seating sections, separate entrances and exits, and women-only emergency crews for female football fans. The Football Federation argued that it was "impossible, considering that this was Mashhad's first international football event, to provide favourable conditions for women to enter the stadium".

Iran beat Lebanon 2-0 in the match. Iran's 1-0 defeat of Iraq in January had already sealed their qualification for the 2022 World Cup finals, to be held later this year in Qatar.