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The ‘Satanic’ women of Iranian soccer

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Iran’s prosecutor-general says he is “ashamed.”

In June, for the first time since 1981, Tehran allowed women to enter Azadi Stadium for a soccer match — or, more precisely, for a live broadcast of a soccer match in Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup. As they watched Team Melli, their national team, compete against Spain, numerous women removed their hijabs, or headscarves, and sang and danced — a deliberate act of defiance against the Islamic Republic’s religious norms. It’s “disgraceful,” complained Mohammad Jafar Montazeri.

“Unfortunately,” the senior law enforcement official declared, “some individuals have penetrated the key institutions of the country and are about to betray the revolution and the blood of our martyrs.”

Their “satanic” agenda, he added, will not succeed.

And yet, to some degree, it already has. Since June, Iranian women have achieved incremental progress in shattering a longstanding taboo against female attendance at sporting events.{mosads}

Days after the game with Spain, the clerical regime let women reenter Azadi Stadium for a screening of Iran’s World Cup match against Portugal. In October, Tehran admitted nearly 100 women for a friendly match between Iran and Bolivia — this time with the teams physically present. In November, hundreds more women gained entry to watch Iran and Japan — again in person — compete in the Asian Champions League.

To be sure, Iran — the only country in the world to bar women from sports stadiums — hasn’t formally lifted the ban. It remains unclear whether women will be able to attend future games. But the modest concessions suggest that mounting domestic and international pressure has begun to weaken Tehran’s resolve.

As Iran’s most popular sport, soccer — much like baseball or football in America — unifies Iranians across the ideological spectrum around a common national identity, fostering patriotism and social cohesion. However, in the regime’s view, public fraternization between the sexes threatens its own Islamist vision for Iran by promoting Western values of sexual equality, which it regards as a harbinger of promiscuity and secularism. In this sense, Tehran fears that mixed company at soccer matches would undermine its Shiite creed and hence its political and religious legitimacy.

But female soccer fans have been nothing if not persistent. Their most subversive strategy — dressing as men to gain access to stadiums — slyly taunts not merely the injunction but the fundamentalist view of women that underpins it.

In April, for example, six women sneaked into Azadi Stadium, which has a capacity of 100,000 people, by donning wigs and fake beards and mustaches, eliciting cheers on social media. The 2006 movie Offside, directed by renowned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, tells a story of several young women whose male disguises meet with less success. Tehran banned the film, but it went on to win awards at international film festivals.

More recently, activists have adopted a more overt posture, forcefully demanding that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body for global soccer tournaments, enforce its own non-discrimination statutes. In 2015, 190 activists signed a letter to then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter asking the organization to suspend Iran’s membership. “No one should be detained on the charge of wanting to watch a soccer or a volleyball game at a stadium, or be beaten for it,” the letter stated. The previous year, Tehran had imprisoned 25-year-old British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami for five months after she attempted to attend a volleyball match. The regime charged her with sedition.

This past year, women’s rights advocates have confronted FIFA’s leadership more directly. When Iran invited the current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, to attend a March 1 soccer match in Azadi Stadium, activists urged women to follow suit in order to catch his attention. Tehran proceeded to arrest 35 women for attempting to enter the arena. Infantino subsequently said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promised him before the game that women will get access to soccer stadiums “soon,” but in countries like Iran, “these things take a bit of time.”

Pressure continued to intensify. In April, Abjeez, a popular Iranian band, released a music video urging men to join women in protesting the ban. In June, when the World Cup began, many Iranian women fulfilled lifelong dreams of seeing Team Melli in action by attending Iran’s opening match with Morocco in Russia’s St. Petersburg Stadium, and spoke publicly and poignantly about the experience. Prominent Iranian human rights activists published another letter to FIFA’s president urging him to demand an end to Iran’s discriminatory policy.{mossecondads}

In November, FIFA’s own Human Rights Advisory Board, an independent body that provides advice and recommendations to FIFA on human rights, released its September report calling on the organization to give Iran a deadline to lift the ban. While the document noted that women’s access to World Cup screenings in Azadi constituted a “positive” development, “these ad hoc decisions are obviously not the same as a formal end to the ban.” The board urged FIFA to articulate “anticipated sanctions” if Tehran fails to comply.

FIFA has yet to heed the board’s counsel, at least publicly.

For his part, Infantino has overstated Tehran’s progress thus far, calling the limited presence of women at November’s game between Iran and Japan “historic” and “a real breakthrough.”

But the events of the past year suggest that the regime, notwithstanding its ideological convictions, remains sensitive to public criticism — and even willing to overrule dissenting voices from within in order to deflect it.

This reality offers a key lesson for FIFA and human rights activists: While decisive and lasting change may require coercive mechanisms, even sustained rhetorical pressure can expose cracks in Tehran’s theocratic armor.

Iran’s half measures to date should not satisfy FIFA. Instead, it should insist on the formal Iranian abrogation of all restrictions on women at sporting events. In so doing, it can make clear that the regime’s malign treatment of women — contra Mohammad Jafar Montazeri — amounts to the true source of shame and disgrace in the Islamic Republic.

Tzvi Kahn is a senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @TzviKahn.

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