“They think that, if they give up on this, it’s a noose for them,” says Maryam Shojaei. “People will ask for more. If they give in in one area, they fear they will have to give in in others.”
“They” are the Iranian authorities and Iranian Football Association, who have thus far resisted calls for the removal of the 40-year ban on women in football stadiums. And Shojaei, who is the sister of the Iran national team captain, Masoud Shojaei, is one of an increasing number of women campaigning for entry: some have attempted to sneak into matches disguised as men, female sports photographers have had to scale buildings nearby just to do their jobs, and others have suffered brutal arrests and detention.
For five years Shojaei has, without the knowledge of her brother, travelled the world following the top-ranked Asian team (23rd in the Fifa world rankings) with banners in tow highlighting the oppressive ban – including at Iran’s 2018 World Cup group games.
“I watched the Brazil World Cup in 2014 and I saw many people and many women from Iran watching. That’s when I thought that I had to do something,” she says. “I thought that I could do something about it because it’s not a law.”
Her brother has also been vocal in support of women in the stands. Two years ago, in a video shared by Radio Farda, he said: “I think if [the ban is lifted] we would have to build a stadium that could hold 200,000 spectators, because we see the flood of passion from our ladies.”
The ban is not written anywhere, it was never introduced, as such, instead creeping in as the political Islam of Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the 1979 revolution, birthed the Islamic Republic of Iran and tightened its grip on a country in turmoil.
“When the revolution happened the whole country was chaotic, the universities were closed, after almost two years the hijab became mandatory and then the Iran-Iraq war happened. Step by step there were just no women inside stadiums,” says Shojaei, who has Canadian citizenship
Times, though, have changed and the backward rule no longer “fits with the character of the country”, she says. “I think they wish they didn’t have it from the beginning because it doesn’t fit with the culture. It’s become a civil practice and they know that, if they give up on this, people will ask for more.”
What would “more” be? “Other issues around women’s rights. For example, women don’t have custody of their children. But these things are in the constitution and harder to change.”
At the same time she jokes Fifa probably “wish they had never brought in their human rights reform” – a landmark policy that commits the organisation to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights including enshrining “upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities” in its constitution.
Two months after a complaint over the ban was submitted to the Fifa ethics committee in April, signed by Shojaei, the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, wrote a letter to the Iranian FA president Mehdi Taj describing a U-turn on the rule change, after a small group of female fans were allowed into a match in Tehran’s Azadi stadium in November, as “disappointing”.
The letter read: “This is not in line with the commitments given to us in March 2018 by [Iran’s] president Rouhani when we were assured that important progress would be made on this matter soon.
“Whilst we are aware of the challenges and cultural sensitivities, we simply have to continue making progress here, not only because we owe it to women all over the world, but also because we have a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the Fifa statutes.
“In the circumstances I would be very grateful if you could inform Fifa, at your earliest convenience but no later than 15 July 2019, as to the concrete steps which both the FFIRI [Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran] and the Iranian state authorities will now be taking in order to ensure that all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so will be allowed to buy tickets and to attend the matches of the qualifiers for the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, which will start in September 2019.”
The 15 July deadline imposed by Infantino has passed without comment from Fifa.
While this letter was a step forward, the governing body did not make this extremely moderate move without being pushed. “I went to Fifa in November with a petition of 240,000 signatures and I gave that petition to Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura, so maybe they felt bad that they hadn’t done anything,” Shojaei says.
She has sent eight letters calling for the world governing body to apply pressure and, if necessary, threaten sanctions against the federation. “The first letter was March 2018 when he went to an Iran game and 32 women were arrested.”
In an interview with Iran Varzeshi, the minister of youth affairs and sports, Masoud Soltanifar, pointed to the lack of a threat in Infantino’s letter but said they were working on the “request” by preparing separate entrances, corridors, services and sections for women in grounds – moves reiterated by the government after the country’s prosecutor, general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, told Radio Farda last week that “Fifa has no sympathy for Iranian women, and its insistence on allowing them to enter arenas and watch male footballers competing against each other is a reflection of enemy’s infiltration in Iran,” and a number of powerful ayatollahs voiced their support for the ban.
Iran has one World Cup qualifier scheduled to be played in Tehran in 2019, in October against Cambodia. Now they wait to see what happens.
Their actions may be having a wider political impact but for the majority of women this is not a consciously political battle. “They are so tired,” Shojaei says. “They fight without their knowledge. They don’t want to make a statement. They just want to go and watch football. They love football.”
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