This week, Iranian authorities publicly reinforced a ban on women attending men’s sporting events, rekindling an old debate that has no place in the 21st century.
Ahead of a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Syria at Tehran’s Azadi stadium, a number of women expressed surprise and joy on social media when the Iranian Football Federation’s official website provided a ticketing option for female attendees to attend the soccer game.
Filled with hope, a number of women bought tickets. But authorities quickly blamed a technical glitch and said that all tickets purchased would be canceled and refunded. The federation initially said only eight women bought tickets and issued a statement saying they were sold mistakenly, emphasizing that there were never any plans to allow the presence of women in Azadi stadium for the Iran-Syria match.
“The physical and infrastructural preparation of the stadiums are not up to having women attendees,” said Mehdi Taj, the president of the Iranian Football Federation.
At least not Iranian women.
Hypocritically, authorities allowed Syrian women — the beneficiary of so much ideological and material support from Iran — into the game. There is no explicit rule that allows foreign women to attend men’s sporting events, but this trend started a few years ago. Still, Iranian women are banned.
Adding insult to injury, many Iranian male soccer fans openly mocked women who tried to defy the ban by protesting outside the stadium.
But there were some Iranian men who were supportive, including several young policemen, who suggested that the Iranian female fans carry a Syrian flag to be able to enter.
As an Iranian woman, I grew up like so many of my countrywomen dreaming about going to stadiums to watch national matches.
Once, my eldest cousin even offered to take me into the stadium if I disguised myself as a little boy, but my mom didn’t like the idea. It was too risky. I could have been arrested, imprisoned or forced to pay a cash fine, as some have throughout the years.
My life changed forever, though, the first time I walked into Oracle Arena in Oakland to watch a Golden State Warriors game in March 2016.
Although I sat courtside — yes imagine it, your first experience of a major sporting event is courtside at the NBA’s liveliest arena — I took my time at halftime to walk around the stadium. I went all the way up to the top rafters and looked down at the court. It was a breathtaking experience. There are not enough words to describe the exhilaration, the energy, the happiness and, oh yes, the sense of equality I felt at that moment. I screamed a lot during that game while cheering the Warriors on, but choked up several times wishing I could have done that just once at home in Iran.
Some people later asked about the experience of sitting courtside at one of America’s top sporting venues. For me though, the biggest cultural shock was simply the experience of being in a stadium.
Americans I meet find it hard to believe that prior to that Warriors game, I had never been to a major sporting event. After all, I’m a 32-year-old sports fan who has spent the majority of her life living in one of the world’s most populated cities, Tehran. And it wasn’t because I didn’t want to or couldn’t afford it.
Like a lot of people, I am now a hardcore Warriors fan, but imagine if I was allowed to experience all those great feelings in my own country, rooting for my national team.
The International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) has pushed Iranian officials to make concessions for women to attend games. Women affiliated with Iran’s ruling system, including several female lawmakers, were finally allowed to sit in segregated sections of stadiums to watch the men’s national team play volleyball. But Iranian women still aren’t permitted to attend the vast majority of male sporting events, such as men’s soccer or wrestling games, the two most popular sports among Iranians.
Maybe it is time for FIFA, the global body governing soccer, to exert their influence and require Iran to change its approach toward allowing women in stadiums for home games, especially when female viewers from the visiting team’s country are allowed to attend.