Iranian women are suffering from soccer gender apartheid

Iranian women are suffering from soccer gender apartheid

Enlightened citizens, NGOs, international institutions and concerned governments have often sought ways to help the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people without interfering in the country’s domestic affairs.

One obvious and surprisingly long-overlooked answer is soccer. FIFA, the international body that oversees the game around the world, and whose image has been tarnished by reports of corruption, has for four decades ignored the egregious fact that there is soccer gender apartheid in Iran.

Indeed, the situation of Iranian women in soccer is arguably worse than the position of blacks under Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa could attend games, albeit in shamefully segregated sections of stadiums.

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Women in Iran are banned from watching men’s soccer in any of the country’s stadiums. But FIFA has finally taken a principled position. It has set September 2019 as a deadline, declaring that Iran must either end its gender apartheid or the country’s national team will be banned from participating in qualifying matches for the all-important World Cup.

So far Iran’s response has been the expected intransigence. One of the highest members of the Iranian judiciary has announced that there will be no change in the ban policy. The FIFA ultimatum, he said, is a colonial conspiracy to break Iran’s “resistance.”

Another ayatollah haughtily declared, “it is not necessary for women to attend soccer games.” Stadiums, he indicated are unsavory places for women. A third ayatollah surmised that the sight of half-naked men running around a source of undue excitement for women.

FIFA must stand firm on its demand. A few years ago, the international body overseeing volleyball served a similar ultimatum about the ban on women attending volleyball games. The regime, always desperate to use any sport victory to boast, and to deflect attention from its failures in other domains, caved. Women can go to volleyball games but not soccer. A firm position by FIFA, helped by other international organizations, and governments, will force the regime to back down.

Soccer is the most popular sport in Iran. Every win by the country’s national team becomes a cause of mass celebrations. On soccer victory nights, dancing and music, both banned in public spaces by the regime, flow so overwhelmingly into the streets that the regime has no choice but to tolerate it.

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Iranian soccer league matches are also arenas for the circulation of much emotional, political and economic energies. Political disgruntlement, and ethnic resentments are invariably a subtext to the major games.

The ownership of most of the teams is in the hands of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) commanders, or their front men. The teams, and the whole business of soccer, is a source of patronage for the regime, and enormous economic revenue for its “insiders.” Political benefits for the regime are also considerable. Giddy minds, worried about despotism and economic hardships, are best kept busy with games and the passions they create and assuage.

A whole elaborate culture of soccer celebrity and gossip helps keep many minds preoccupied. Soccer then is an important tool of social control for the regime. At the same time, the regime has hitherto refused to accept the banality of the ban because it rightly fears that a victory for women on this apparently insignificant issue will result in an avalanche of democratic demands from other segments of the society.

Authoritarianism survives on fear and its own cultivated image of invulnerability. It is in this context that FIFA and others in the world can help the just fight of Iranian women against gender apartheid.  

The fight, of course, is not new. No sooner had the ban been announced some forty years ago than women began to fight it. Sadly, Iranian men have hitherto done little to help. A boycott of games under gender apartheid could have helped end this banality sooner. A gesture of support came about fourteen years ago, when one of Iran’s most eminent filmmakers, Jaafar Panahi, made his Offside, based on the true story of Iranian women trying to get into a soccer match, dressed as men.

In reality, that story has been often repeated, with many women paying a price for their love of the game, and more importantly for their love of their basic right to attend a game. Only recently women who had entered a recent game dressed as bearded men, and the photographer who took images of their defiance were arrested and then released on bail.

For forty years Iranian women have embarked on a remarkable movement of civil disobedience against misogyny, particularly against the laws on forcing women to wear an Islamic hijab. They are for equality in rights, and freedom in sartorial choices. Attending a soccer game is one of those rights.

In the past, FIFA might have been less willing to challenge this banal ban in Iran because Saudi Arabia, with its deep pocket, had banned women from stadiums. But today Saudi Arabia has opened its stadiums to women. If FIFA stands firm, and if international organizations and companies come to its help, Iranian men might be encouraged to join the fight.

The regime, in spite of its recent announcements of intransigence, will have little choice but to back down. The political costs of continuing a banal policy that forces Iran out of World Cup competition might well be higher than a chink in its intransigent and invulnerable armor. From apparently small victories can come big democratic transformations.

Abbas Milani is the director of Iranian Studies Program at Stanford, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His last book was “The Shah.”