By Pooya Stone

On Tuesday, Quartz published an editorial by Kelly Nascimento-DeLuca, who is the daughter of the football star known as Pele and is presently working on a documentary about women’s soccer.

The article detailed its author’s experience of learning about the ban on female attendance at men’s sporting events in Iran, and it commented on the ostensibly historic opening of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium on October 10, for the Iranian national team’s first qualifying match for the 2020 World Cup.

Nascimento-DeLuca reiterated a point that other advocates for the Open Stadiums movement have made in the nearly two weeks since that match. The article’s headline cautioned that the attendance by roughly 4,500 women should be viewed as “a gauge, not a win,” and the author went on to argue that the historical significance of the October 10 match would largely depend on what further actions FIFA took to reinforce its prior ultimatum regarding free access for women.

Over the summer, FIFA President Gianni Infantino issued a statement urging Iranian authorities to demonstrate clear progress toward opening up their stadiums. That call to action gave way to a stricter demand from soccer’s international governing body in September, following the death of Sahar Khodayari, also known as the “Blue Girl,” who was arrested for attempting to gain access to a match involving her favorite Iranian soccer club while dressed as a man.

Although this practice is fairly commonplace among female opponents of the stadium ban, authorities sporadically impose harsh punishments on those who are caught in the act. In Khodayari’s case, this was reportedly going to involve between six months and two years in Iran’s notoriously harsh prison system. After learning of this, the 29-year-old woman set herself on fire outside the courthouse and died in hospital a week later.

The incident helped to galvanize international opposition to Iran’s stadium ban, as well as casting a critical gaze upon FIFA’s historically conciliatory approach to dealing with the issue. The organization’s defined standards for member states clearly include a prohibition on any form of discrimination in ticketing. The stadium ban clearly violates this, as do lesser restrictions on female attendance, which have been adopted at various times in order to deflect international criticism and give the impression that Iran is moving toward compliance with FIFA’s rules.

But Nascimento-DeLuca and others have taken care to point out that female attendance at the October 10 match still represented only a limited relaxation of the ban. And even this apparent half-measure was not to be applied to Iranian soccer matches across the board. This was confirmed beyond any doubt ten days later, when an October 20 match between two clubs within the Iranian Football League took place in absence of any female spectators.

The venue for that match was Azadi Stadium – the same venue as the much-praised World Cup qualifier – but enforcement of the ban on women was rendered virtually risk-free by the absence of reporters or cameras from global media outlets. And even when these were present, the authorities underlined their commitment to gender segregation by erecting physical barriers between the small, temporary women’s section and the rest of the stadium. That section was also guarded by security forces, and female ticket sales were strictly limited to its pre-determined capacity, despite the fact that this represented only about five percent of the stadium’s total seating.

 

As Open Stadiums advocates have sought to emphasize, these restrictions clearly represent ongoing violations of the FIFA rules concerning discrimination. It has been widely reported that many more women attempted to purchase tickets for the October 10 match than the roughly 4,500 who were ultimately allowed in. However, the FIFA statement that led to their admission specifically stated that ticket sales should be made in accordance with public demand.

Considering that the Iranian authorities faced no apparent consequences for ignoring this aspect of FIFA’s ultimatum, it seems likely that they will also ignore the further demand that female access is allowed on a permanent basis. In her Quartz article, Nascimento-DeLuca warned that this danger would be amplified if FIFA officials or the international community more generally became “lost in the frenzy of one small victory” and returned to a conciliatory approach to dealing with Tehran.

This, in turn, poses a broader risk in light of the fact that the stadium ban is only one aspect of Iran’s overall restrictions on women’s rights. At various times, these restrictions have been subject to a general surge in enforcement, even as Tehran has sought to give the impression that it was compromising with international standards in certain, specific areas.

Atefeh Rangriz was one of three dozen women arrested during protests on May 1 alone, and she is currently awaiting appeal of an 11 and a half year sentence given to her for “assembly and collusion against national security” and “disturbing public order.” Her open letter follows multiple transfers over the course of more than five months, during which time authorities have repeatedly ignored the fact that her family has posted bail to secure her release. The message served to announce the start of her hunger strike and her intention to “turn my body into a weapon against all these injustices.”

These public statements can bring additional legal consequences, as evidenced by the ongoing prosecution of 14 other female activists who signed a letter calling for the resignation of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. All 14 are facing charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” in connection with their June 11 statement, which was issued in solidarity with a similar statement by male activists. The women’s message, however, specifically highlighted the lack of progress in women’s rights during the 40-year reign of the Islamic Republic, saying:

“We rise against this anti-woman regime that has wiped out our human values and demand a complete passage from the Islamic Republic and drafting of a new Constitution for the establishment of a state in which women’s dignity, identity, and equal rights are recognized in all areas.”