On Thursday, as FIFA President Gianni Infantino sat beaming and enjoying one of the most exciting soccer events in Iran, 35 women were arrested for risking their safety in order to enjoy the same basic freedoms as men. The Islamic Republic of Iran has a ban on Iranian women attending any type of sporting event in a stadium or public place.
The Tehran Derby has been a focal point of soccer lovers for decades. The last time women were able to watch the match in person was in 1979 when Iran implemented the ban. But for this match between two popular teams – Persepolis and Esteqlal – girls and women were so desperate and frustrated with the sheer injustice that they dressed up as men in order to get by security.
They were caught, the youngest being only 13 years old. According to the Interior Minister Seyyed Salman Samani, the women were not arrested but rather being transferred to a proper place and held until the match was over.
The Iranian Football Federation did not issue a statement. Initially, FIFA did not address the issue at all and Infantino avoided questions from journalists altogether. Only after media started reporting on the crisis, Infantino released a predictably non-committal statement.
Mr.Infantino FIFA’s president answer to our open letter:
Later, Infantino insisted that part of his trip was to discuss the stadium ban with President Hassan Rouhani. After he returned to FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Infantino issued a statement assuring the football world that women would have access to stadiums soon.
He (Rouhani) told me that in countries such as (Iran), these things take a bit of time.
Changes in rigid policy takes time, but almost 40 years of injustice is a fairly large amount of time to propel change.
Negotiations on this matter were on pause during the derby as the women were transferred and Infantino enjoyed the match from a private and very secure box at Azadi Stadium.
The only place that Iranian women should be transferred is to a better seating section. This policy is bizarre considering the ban does not apply to non-Iranian women. If there are international matches and visiting supporters attend, they are permitted to attend.
In 2013, the disgraced FIFA President Sepp Blatter also met with President Rouhani who said that there would be progress and there would be change.
I raised the topic at my meeting with the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, said Blatter. And came away with the impression that this intolerable situation could change over the medium term.
Five years later, the women are still waiting.
The targeted misogyny against Iranian women is baffling and enraging. Quite often, Islam law interpretations are used by men to isolate and disempower women from participating in society.
This is unacceptable and considering that in other Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East – including Saudi Arabia – women are allowed to attend sporting events, it renders this law totally nonsensical.
Today the police detained for several hours dozens of women who wanted to watch the soccer match between the 2 most popular teams in the Iranian league. Meanwhile, Gianni Infantino, the head of FIFA, was present in the stadium. Did he bother to raise this with Iranian officials?
The obvious sexism is glaring and unacceptable.
My friend Sara is an activist who has been a lead organizer with Open Stadiums, one of the campaigns amplifying the plight of Iranian women. (Her real name has been changed to protect her identity)
She tells me that the women who were arrested were held in Vozara prison where women are kept for anti-morality felonies. The women and girls now have this incident on their permanent records and could be taken in for more serious offenses if this reoccurs.
Knowing the determination and resilience of Iranian women, it is likely that they will not concede. I asked Sara what was required to help support the women in Iran with regards to this pressing matter. She tells me that holding FIFA accountable is the first step.
[sic] I think we need to make FIFA answer properly to the incidents that happened today in Iran, she said.
FIFA needs to stop pandering to the Iranian Football Federation and come down hard. They should not engage with Iran on these terms. FIFA should be advocating for women fans, not erasing their struggles and avoiding difficult conversations. Women are passionate supporters of the worlds game. That they are not permitted to enjoy it is a grave injustice, and one in which FIFA is complicit.
Safe access to football is a basic right. The beautiful game should not be blackened by toxic patriarchy and gender discrimination. FIFA vowed to uphold an anti-oppression policy but seems to be failing.
I asked Sara if she feels change can be made.
I hope so, she replied. More than any time, now is the time: World Cup 2018, passionate female fans and a ready society. I hope FIFA does their job and becomes more responsible. Watching football shouldn’t be crime.