Iran women fans resist harassment to attend team’s game with Spain

When Iran take on Portugal in Saransk on Monday night, there will be a group of Iranian fans in the stadium who have not been allowed to watch games back home in Iran for decades: women.

The World Cup in Russia has provided a chance for a few of Iran’s female football fans to do what hardline religious authorities at home have not permitted them to do since the 1979 revolution, and has also led to female fans back in Tehran being allowed to watch a live transmission of the team’s second game against Spain, suggesting that the ban on female attendance may soon be lifted.

However, two fans who are in Russia running a campaign to have women allowed into stadiums back home say they were targeted and harassed by Russian authorities before Iran’s match with Spain last week.

For Sara, who travelled to the tournament from Iran and is using an assumed name to avoid identification by Iranian authorities, her country’s opening match against Morocco in St Petersburg was the first time she had been to a football game. “I’ve watched lots on television but this was so different; I felt like I had stepped into the television set and everything had become 3D,” she said. “I didn’t really know how to cheer, because I’ve never been inside a stadium.”

Sara is one of the founders of the Open Stadiums movement, which campaigns for women to be allowed in to watch games. She has been battling on the issue since 2005. The experience of finally making it to an Iran game was a happy one, especially given their 1-0 win over Morocco, albeit with a late own goal, but she also said she felt sad at the symbolism of the occasion. “It was our dream for years, and it turns out it’s just such a simple thing to have a stadium packed with happy people.”

In Tehran, Iran matches at the World Cup are screened at the city’s Azadi Stadium. The Morocco game there was open only for men, but the Spain game was open to women too, after an on-and-off situation where women with tickets were first sent home and later told they would be able to attend after all, reflecting the divisive nature of the topic among Iran’s ruling elite. It was the first time since 1979 that female fans had been allowed to watch a football match inside the stadium.

While the Spain game was a first for female fans back home, those in Russia had problems at the match, held in Kazan. Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei, an Iranian woman who left Iran a decade ago, held up a banner during the Morocco game with the slogan: “Support Iranian women to attend stadiums #NoBan4Women”.

All banners have to be photographed, translated and cleared by Fifa in the days before a game, and Shojaei said she had done this with hers and received a printed confirmation together with a photograph of the banner that showed it had been allowed. At the first game, in St Petersburg, there were no problems and she was able to enter the stadium with the banner.

In Kazan, things were different. When she tried to take the banner into the stadium, she was told by security staff she would have to wait for clearance, and was then told it was not possible. Outside the ground, she noticed two men in plain clothes were following her and would approach people she tried to ask for help.

“I must have talked to 17 or 18 people at different gates,” she said. “They all started out being friendly and helpful, and then these two guys would come and say something to them in Russian and they would just turn away and say they can’t help.”


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