For the past 40 years, Iranian women have almost never been able to watch football live. Several thousand are set to attend a World Cup qualifier this Thursday, but the move is not without its critics.
Iran's World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia this Thursday wouldn't normally be of much interest to anybody beyond the two countries involved. But this time, the eyes of the world will be on the match in Iran's Azadi Stadium – not so much on the pitch, but in the stands. This is the first time in the 40-year history of the Islamic Republic that Iranian women have been able to purchase tickets for a men's football match – although there have been a couple of rare exceptions.
At first, just two blocks of the stadium went on sale to women via the internet, then quickly, due to the brisk sales, another two blocks were opened up for them. According to state news agency IRNA, the 3,500 tickets for sale were snapped up in a matter of minutes. Many Iranian women took to social media to celebrate the move as a success in the fight against the discrimination of women in the country.
The end of the 'women's cage'
However, the move also has its critics. Under the hash tag "Wake UpFIFA" some complained that only four of the stadium's 72 have been opened to women and the total number of women to be allowed into the venue was capped at 5,000. The Azadi Stadium has a capacity of more than 78,000.
Others have posted pictures showing workers putting up fences to keep the women's sections separate from the men's.
What is also unclear is how many tickets have been handed out to women who have been handpicked by the authorities. Iranian sports photographer Maryam Majd took to Twitter to complain that female photographers would not be allowed into the Azadi stadium.
Iran threatened with exclusion from the World Cup
So far, the lifting of the stadium ban on women only applies to World Cup qualifying matches for the men's national team – but not to the Iranian league matches or the Asian Champions League, as demanded by FIFA. FIFA had stepped up pressure on those in power on the Iranian authorities after an Iranian woman set herself on fire in front of the Islamic Revolutionary Court building in Tehran in early September. The 29-year-old later died of her injuries.The woman had been earlier been told that she could face a prison sentence for having snuck into a football stadium disguised as a man. Her death had triggered a wave of protests in Iran and beyond.
The authorities in Tehran backed down after FIFA threatened to bar the Iranian national team from the 2022 World Cup in Qatar if they failed to lift the ban on women attending football matches. The arch-conservative clergy in Iran had justified the exclusion of women with the argument that they needed to be protected from the sight of half-naked men and a vulgar environment.