Some 4,000 flag-waving Iranian women cheered on Iran’s national team in a Tehran stadium on Thursday for a 2022 World Cup qualifier.
After a nearly 40-year ban on women attending sporting events following the country’s Islamic Revolution, what we are seeing Thursday is not yet cause for celebration.
That’s surely the view that FIFA — soccer’s global governing body — will take. But when you look past the images of face-painted, cheering women coming out of Iran on Thursday you realize this is just the latest example of FIFA’s painfully slow progress on women’s rights.
It’s why #WakeUpFIFA is making the rounds on Twitter.
Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, which hosted Thursday’s game against Cambodia, seats about 80,000 people, according to the AP. So giving only 4,000 women the opportunity to enter the gates and cheer on the national team is not progress, it’s a condescending pat on the head. Lack of interest? Tickets to the women’s section were gobbled up in an hour, and Iranian officials did not offer more seats to women despite the rest of the stadium barely selling any tickets at all.
And the women’s section — separated from the men by fencing and under the protection of female police officers — did not appear to be prime seating.
Women have risked prison sentences to fight for the right to take a seat with male fans in stadiums. One woman — handed a six-month prison sentence for sneaking into a stadium dressed as a man so she could watch the sport she loves — took her own life in September by setting herself on fire.
Wanting to watch a sporting event should not be a life-or-death struggle. But it has been since the ban went into effect in 1981.
“Instead of taking half-hearted steps to address their discriminatory treatment of women who want to watch football, the Iranian authorities should lift all restrictions on women attending football matches, including domestic league games, across the country,” said Philip Luther, a research and advocacy director at Amnesty International.
Maryam Shojaei, an activist and sister of Iran’s national team captain, wrote a powerful op-ed for The New York Times ahead of Thursday’s game.
“After our years of fighting for this fundamental right, we have finally gotten the leaders of FIFA, the governing body that oversees all soccer, to start upholding its own rules prohibiting this discrimination. On Thursday, for the first time, some women will be able to buy tickets and sit in Iran’s largest stadium, Azadi,” Shojaei wrote.
Notice how she uses “some.”
As she points out in her op-ed, FIFA’s own constitution prohibits discrimination against women. Letting “some” women into a stadium for one game is just a one-day public relations grab if serious forward progress doesn’t follow.
“Allowing women the basic right to watch soccer matches in a stadium with their families would symbolize meaningful progress for women’s rights in the country,” Shojaei added. “It’s still not safe for me to return to Iran for Thursday’s match, but I hope that some day I can watch my brother in person, seated with all of my family, in Azadi stadium.”
The organization Human Rights Watch asked: “But why is there a seat limit for women?”
Good question and one FIFA boss Gianni Infantino needs to answer.
“This is a very positive step forward, and one which FIFA, and especially Iranian girls and women, have been eagerly waiting for,” FIFA said in a statement.
Positive step? More like a baby step that Amnesty International called “a cynical publicity stunt.”
It’s not good enough until FIFA delivers on its promise to make all games in Iran (and around the globe) open to all who want to watch — without restriction.
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