By Shireen Ahmed
VICE is covering the launch of the Global Goals for sustainable development. In the next fifteen years, they want to achieve three massive tasks: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and fix climate change.
This summer, as I was watching the thrilling Women's World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan, I got a direct message via Twitter from my friend, Sara. (Names of activists in Iran have been changed for the protection.) She was elated to be able to watch the match, too—she lives in Iran and was unable to watch much of the tournament. We chatted briefly about the match. I told Saher I was fortunate enough to have attended some of the matches at Lansdowne Stadium, in Ottawa, with my niece and my daughter. "I wish one day I can watch in a stadium," wrote Sara.
Sara's message made my heart ache. Her words were laced with sadness from injustice, a feeling I know, even in Canada. For years, FIFA's ban on hijab denied me, along with millions of other women, any chance of playing football. Enduring that ban was painful, unnecessary and kept me from fully enjoying the sport I played for decades. The beautiful game is a huge part of my identity. It has inspired and invigorated me, and I was kept from playing. Yet, I had the freedom of attending matches in person.
Sara lives in Iran, which since the 1979 revolution has banned women from attending sporting events at stadiums around the country. Hardline clerics insist that it is inappropriate to have women at matches, where they would unnecessarily be mixing with men outside their families, where the male players wear shorts, and where, the clerics say, there is often vulgar language and behaviour. Nonetheless, non-Iranian women are allowed to support visiting teams in Iran, and have freely attended games—one of the things that has made the ban more unbearable for those subject to it.
For decades the ban focused largely on football stadiums (the most popular sport in Iran), but women were allowed to congregate and watch matches in public squares, which became popular during the 2010 World Cup. In 2012, before the EURO Cup, Iran extended the ban to include wrestling and volleyball matches and any area or stadium. Since then, men and women have been prohibited from watching matches together in public spaces, cafes, or restaurants.
"No one should be able to eliminate half the nation from public places," Sara later emailed me. "But without any change to the law, they will not let us attend."
To bar women from stadiums in a sports-loving country like Iran is a form of exclusion so perverse that it has propelled much action. Open Stadiums (also known as White Scarves) started in 2005 to draw attention to gender inequalities in sport and lobby against women being kept from public stadiums, and Sara has been a central figure in Tehran for the organization since the beginning. The activists of Open Stadiums organize petitions and lobby international sporting federations for support. At home in Tehran, when posters and placards have been restricted, they have resorted to printing the political messages onto their white headscarves to avoid any fracas with police. In 2009, Iranian laws on public protests tightened, and Open Stadiums and their allies went online and expanded their advocacy efforts. Identities of organizers in Iran are protected due to danger of persecution.
The issue has even been the subject of films like 'Offside' (2006) by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The critically acclaimed movie portrays the fictional struggles of six young female football fans who are prevented from attending a World Cup Match and are eventually detained. Panahi made the film hoping it would "push the limits in Iran and help women." Almost ten years later, Iranian women are still not free to enter Azadi Stadium.
An Iranian soccer fan watching a match in 2006—not much has changed for women since then. Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
On June 20, 2014, British-Iranian student Ghoncheh Ghavami got ready to protest at Azadi (which means 'freedom' in Farsi), which was hosting a men's volleyball match. She was detained by Iranian authorities, and after 100 days of solitary confinement, she was sentenced to one year in prison. The case was a slap in the face to sports, athletes, and fans, and it grabbed the attention of major media outlets and Amnesty International; a petition for her release collected over 730,000 signatures. President Ary Graca of the Federation International du Volleyball (FIVB) issued a strong statement last November: "We never normally seek to interfere with the laws of any country. But in accordance with the Olympic Charter, the FIVB is committed to inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis." The charges against Ghavami were finally dropped in April, and she returned to the United Kingdom.
Days later, deputy Sports Minister Abdolhamid Ahmad declared that Iran would allow women into stadiums. There had been small steps from government officials to address the stadium ban before this year. In 2006, for example, former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a football fan, wrote to Iran's Physical Education Organization and implored them to allow women into stadiums. He unsuccessfully argued that women would improve the atmosphere at stadiums and welcome a more family-friendly space. Ahmadinejad did not have any support from FIFA at the time.
The April announcement of the stadium ban reversal coincided with the news of abreakthrough in negotiations over Iran's nuclear program. Activists were hopeful that real progress had been made. Yet, women were still denied entry into Azadi Stadium to watch the six international matches hosted by the Iranian Volleyball Federation this summer. Despite pressure from Open Stadiums, FIVB did not comment further. Any politicized reasoning for keeping women from sport is enraging; more frustrating is international governing bodies of the sport who just release press releases and then disappear—orheads of federations whose disingenuous comments do not help.
Iranian women have a few allies among the higher ranks of the international sports. Moya Dodd, a FIFA executive committee member, is a tireless advocate for women in football.
As vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), which has jurisdiction over Iran, Dodd is perhaps in a strongest position to put more pressure on Iran to truly open its stadiums. She has met with Iranian activists multiple times in recent years, including with a member of Open Stadiums during this year's Women's World Cup.
"Football is the most popular sport in the world, and it plays a big role in setting the behavioural norms in society," Dodd wrote in an e-mail. "Excluding women from enjoying it as a live spectacle is not only unfair to those women as individuals, it's not only unfair to the game of football to reduce its audience, it's not only unfair to the development of women's football because women can't witness and learn from watching the those games - but the message it sends is that it's also acceptable to exclude us from society's mainstream activities. And that is a fundamental breach of human rights."
Dodd was instrumental in lobbying FIFA after Iran women's national football team suffered a heartbreaking disqualification for wearing hijabs in 2011, and was unable to gain a place in the Women's World Cup. That prompted a two-year campaign that eventually resulted on FIFA lifting the ban on head-coverings in March 2014.
Sara told me that Iranian feminists are in regular contact with Dodd and grateful for the solidarity she has provided. Working with grassroots activists is crucial in order to accomplish goals set by ....To continue reading, click here.
Source: https://sports.vice.com/ca/article/stadiums-are-still-closed-to-women-in-iran