Thousands of Iranian women cheered inside a Tehran stadium last week. Female fans were watching the first professional soccer match they’ve been allowed to freely attend in decades—but they had to sit separate from the men.
Women have been banned from many sporting events in Iran since 1981. Iran is the world’s last nation to bar women from soccer matches. Saudi Arabia recently began letting women attend games.
In 2006, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted women to attend matches to “improve soccer-watching manners and promote a healthy atmosphere.” However, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters, opposed the decision.
Last week, facing a ban from the international football association, Iran let a controlled number of women into Azadi Stadium in Tehran. The ladies wore hats and face paint; they blew horns and wrapped themselves in the country’s vivid red, green, and white as Iran thrashed Cambodia 14-0 in a 2022 World Cup qualifier.
“We are so happy that finally we got the chance to go to the stadium,” says Zahra Pashaei, a 29-year-old nurse who has seen soccer games only on television. “For me, 22 or 23 years of longing and regret lies behind this.”
Security women draped in black watched the group closely. All of the females sat at least 200 yards apart from the men at the match.
A British human rights group calls the soccer game decision “a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities intended to whitewash their image.”
Still, many people considered last week’s game attendance a victory. Shopkeeper Amir Ali Bagheri sold Pashaei a jersey before the match. Women “are so excited they are going to the stadium,” he said. Bagheri hopes “there will be freedom sooner so that they can attend all matches, not just the national team matches.” He adds, “That will be much better.”
(Zahra Pashaei (center) cheers during a 2022 World Cup qualifier soccer match between Iran and Cambodia. AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)