Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Wednesday slammed Iranian authorities over an incident in which hundreds of women spectators were locked out of a World Cup qualifying match.
"Iranian authorities have repeatedly demonstrated they are willing to go to great lengths to enforce their discriminatory and cruel ban on women attending football stadiums," a statement on HRW's website said. "Given Iranian authorities' longstanding violations, FIFA needs to follow its own global guidelines on nondiscrimination and should consider enforcing penalties for Iran’s noncompliance."
Earlier, FIFA expressed "concerns" over Monday's incident and said it had asked the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) for more information surrounding the match that was played not in the capital Tehran, but in the religious city of Mashhad in the north of the country.
The FFIRI has expressed concerns about possible FIFA sanctions, including exclusion from this year's World Cup.
"We are hearing worrying news from FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation)," Mehrdad Seraji, an FFIRI board member, tweeted on Tuesday, the day after Iran, which had already qualified for Qatar, defeated Lebanon 2-0 on Monday.
He also denied that the FFIRI bore any responsibility for the incident, tweeting that should a ban be imposed, "then those involved in the bitter incident in Mashhad are responsible."
Ticket holders denied entry
Iran's Sports Ministry had set aside 2,000 tickets for women fans, but when they turned up at Mashhad's Imam Reza Stadium, they found themselves denied entry.
Police reportedly used pepper spray on the women after they began protesting against their barring. Videos posted on social media show women in distress, possibly suffering from the effects of pepper spray.
Like FFIRI board member Seraji, some outside observers have suggested that religious hardliners in Mashhad may have acted unilaterally without consulting the football association.
Following the match, the captain of Iran's national team, Alireza Jahanbakhsh also condemned the lockout. "I don't think anything would have happened if women had come to the stadium," he was quoted as saying by IRIB state television. "This could promote our culture."
Also speaking to IRIB, Mohsen Davari, governor of Mashhad, told IRIB that he apologized "that many people couldn't enter the stadium... Unfortunately, a large number of people outside the stadium were deprived of watching the game."
Iran's Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said that "if conditions allowed the sale of tickets to women, a suitable place had to be found for them."
The case was "not acceptable... and shows poor management," he added.
Women had been excluded from games in Iran for decades following the 1979 Islamic revolution, but in September 2019 FIFA threatened to suspend Iran from competitions if it continued to deny women access to stadiums.
'No turning back'
The FIFA directive came after a fan, Sahar Khodayari, died having set herself on fire in fear of being jailed after trying to attend a match in disguise. She had reportedly been detained in 2018 as she tried to enter a stadium dressed as a male.
"(Our) position is clear," the FIFA statement in reaction to Monday's incident said. "Historic progress has been achieved... FIFA expects this to continue, as there can be no turning back."
On Wednesday, President Ebrahim Raisi responded to the controversy by instructing the Interior Ministry to investigate the incident.
Monir Ghaedi contributed to this report.
Edited by James Thorogood