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Football in Iran: Where women have a history of protesting

John Duerden
October 12, 2022

Women in Iran have taken the lead in recent protests, but it's not the first time they have defied the regime. For years, female football fans have disguised themselves as members of the opposite sex to attend matches.

A Persepolis fan holds the team's scarf at a match between Persepolis and Sanat Naft-e Abadan in Iran's Premier League at Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran August 31, 2022.
Female football fans in Iran have been protesting for years. But now it's about more than just football.Image: WANA/REUTERS

The bravery of women in Iran in standing up to a repressive regime in recent weeks has been noted around the world.

Protesters have taken to the streets up and down the country in response to the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody in September after she was arrested by the so-called morality police for "unsuitable attire."

It wasn't the only loss of life. According to a Norwegian-based human rights group, at least 185 people have since been killed across the country.

"There is a lot of rage and anger because of the killing of innocent people, and the frustration that we feel at our inability to do anything about it," says Leyli, a female football supporter who knows from first-hand experience what it is like to run the risk of defying authorities in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In 2017, when her team, Persepolis, won the title for the first time in nine years, she smuggled herself into the stadium for the final game of the season.

"I liked Persepolis because it was the people's club and I feel and still think their values are different from others. This club is not just part of me, it's my whole life," Leyli says, using a pseudonym to protect her identity.

"I wanted to see the trophy in the hands of the captain, Jalal Hosseini, and nothing could prevent me. I thought that maybe this moment would never be repeated again and maybe I would not be alive when they opened the stadium gates to women."

Whether from the forced wearing of hijabs or being banned from attending sporting events, women have felt the full force of state repression since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

And Leyli, a football fan since watching legendary Iran striker Farshad Pious play his last game for Persepolis in 1997, had to watch World Cup qualifiers, Asian Champions League finals or big domestic league matches, on television.

But by 2017, that was something that she could no longer accept.

Iran supporters wave the national flag during the 2022 Qatar World Cup Asian Qualifiers football match between Iran and Lebanon, at the Imam Reza Stadium in the city of Mashhad, on March 29, 2022.
Football is popular in Iran but crowds are traditionally exclusively maleImage: Farshad Abbasi/AFP via Getty Images

Leyli's disguise

"I wanted to be there at any cost and I just asked myself, 'Why can't I go? Why don't they let us enter stadiums?' It is based on nothing except rotten beliefs. It's disrespectful to limit what women can do through coercion." 

So she did the only thing that she thought she could do to get inside the massive Azadi Stadium, the iconic arena which seats 100,000 (male) spectators: she dressed as a boy, putting layers and layers on to disguise her female form.

"It wasn't easy at all," she recalls. "I wore lots of clothes to make it less obvious. I had to put on make-up, too. I was worried that it wasn't good enough to fool the police."

After a trip across the city to get to the stadium hours before kick-off, to make sure of a ticket, there was another issue. "I really didn't want to go to the bathroom in the stadium so I could not even drink anything."

There was the constant threat of being discovered by security guards or secret police who were placed among the crowd. "I was scared, a lot. I didn't know what would happen if they had discovered that I was not a boy and what my penalty would be."

An Iranian soccer female fan wearing a hat and a flag while waiting to enter the Azadi (Freedom) stadium in western Tehran for watching a soccer match between Esteghlal F.C. and Mes Kerman, August 25, 2022.
For the first time since the Islamic Revolution, 500 women were allowed to enter the Azadi Stadium for a match, including this Esteghlal fan.Image: Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Taking a Risk

Leyli's concerns were not unfounded, as a tragic incident two years later showed.

In March 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a female supporter of Persepolis' local rivals Esteghlal, was caught watching her team inside the stadium. Upon learning she could face six months in prison, Khodayari killed herself in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court building.

She became known as "Blue Girl," in reference to Esteghlal's club colors.

Other women imprisoned for watching football include Forough Alaei, Zahra Khoshnavaz, Leili Maleki and Hedieh Marvasti, who were only released in 2019 after their families paid US $11,000.

Leyli went to games alone as she felt it was safer to do so. "When you go to the stadium dressed as a boy, there's no point having a friend with you because you can't speak, otherwise they could discover who you really are from your voice," she explains.

"And you can't support each other anyway if you get caught so it's better to be alone."

Pressure brings change, for a while

Over the years, pressure from world governing body FIFA and groups such as Open Stadiums has seemed to make a difference.

When the new league season kicked off in August this year, the authorities allowed a limited number of women into a separate section at the Azadi Stadium.

On August 31, Leyli was present as Persepolis beat Sanat Naft 2-0 — for the first time not dressed as a boy, but cheering along with everyone else.

"It felt very different," she said. "At first, I didn't believe that I could go there just wearing my own clothes. It was so strange that I even forgot to take photos and videos."

Now, the gates are locked again, though for men too this time, with authorities preoccupied with the ongoing protests.

For Leyli, for the first time in years, football doesn't feel that important.  "We don't know what will happen."

Edited by Matt Ford