Iran women freely attend football match for first time in decades

Tehran (AFP) –


Waving flags and snapping selfies, thousands of Iranian women on Thursday attended a football match freely for the first time in decades, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial stadium restrictions.

Elated female fans wore the national green, white and red flag around their shoulders and over their hair as they streamed into a tiny section of Tehran's 100,000-capacity Azadi Stadium for Iran's 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia.

Some donned sporty hats over their headscarves, while others painted their faces with the colours of the flag.

Their beaming smiles underscored a day that felt victorious for the female fans, even before the match began.

And with every goal the Iranian team scored, the cheers in the women's section grew louder.

By the end of the game, the Iranian side had won with a blowout of 14-0.

For nearly 40 years, the Islamic republic has barred female spectators from entering football and other sports stadiums, with clerics arguing women must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.

Last month, world football's governing body FIFA ordered Iran to allow women access to stadiums without restriction and in numbers determined by demand for tickets.

- 'No turning back' -

That came after the death of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself ablaze last month outside a court in fear of being jailed for trying to attend a match.

Dubbed "Blue Girl" because of the colours of the club she supported -- Esteghlal FC -- she had reportedly been detained last year when trying to enter a stadium dressed as a boy.

Her death sparked an outcry, with many calling for Iran to be banned and matches boycotted.

In a statement on Thursday, FIFA feted the match as "a very positive step forward".

"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," it said.

"There can be no stopping or turning back now."

According to an AFP journalist, between 4,000 to 4,500 women watched the game on Thursday while 6,000 men also attended.

State news agency IRNA earlier said that 3,500 women had purchased tickets ahead of the match.

Even before the starting whistle blew, female fans cheered joyfully as the name of each Iranian player was announced over the loudspeakers, an AFP journalist at the stadium said.

While it is not the first time women have attended football matches in Iran, it is the first time they have been allowed to buy tickets.

On previous occasions, attendees have been handpicked by the authorities.

Saluting the move, pro-reform newspaper Sazandegui published a photograph of two female football supporters, coupled with the headline: "The women of freedom."

For some men too, Thursday's game was worthy of celebration.

"It's a great feeling that we're here together, finally. We only wish this can continue in the future," a male fan told AFP.

- 'Lift all restrictions' -

Iranian female football fans may have a lot to fight for yet.

FIFA has demanded that the authorities allow an unrestricted number of women to attend all games. But Tehran has yet to announce that they will be granted unrestricted access to all matches.

Even for Thursday's match, many women who were unable to get tickets in time for the game were left disappointed.

"I'm 18 years old, and for 14 years I've dreamt of going to a stadium," student Guelareh told AFP. "But I didn't get a ticket."

On Twitter, critics had used the hashtag #WakeUpFIFA to campaign for more tickets for women.

Amnesty International condemned the limited allocation of tickets for women as a "cynical publicity stunt" following Khodayari's death.

"The Iranian authorities should lift all restrictions on women attending football matches, including domestic league games, across the country," the rights group said.

Government spokesman Ali Rabii, a supporter of the move to allow women into stadiums, wrote on Telegram that following his mediation efforts, some women without tickets were also allowed into Azadi stadium on Thursday.

"Calm, disciplined, happy, excited, safe, egalitarian and elegant: this was Azadi stadium today, thanks to the presence of our nation's girls and women!" the official wrote on Twitter.