The Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI) has agreed to allow women football fans to attend qualifying matches for the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) World Cup Qatar 2022, which are set to start in September, the Iranian Students News Agency has reported, citing the FFIRI President Mehdi Taj.

The government must, however, approve the measure before it goes into effect.

Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from attending matches at large sports stadiums. Even Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women spectators attending football matches in January 2018.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the Basij (volunteer) forces, the clerics and the Judiciary all oppose women fans attending men’s sporting events. They argue that men behave inappropriately and commit lewd acts around women spectators at football matches.

The announcement by the FFIRI follows a letter sent earlier this month by FIFA President Gianni Infantino to Mr. Taj urging Iran to take “concrete steps” to lift the ban on women to attend matches in sports stadiums by September.

Mr. Infantino was in Teheran in November for the Asian Champions League final when the Iranian authorities allowed women to watch Persepolis play Kashima Antlers of Japan.

“I was able to witness real and tangible progress with regard to genuine participation of women in football,” the Associated Press (AP) reported, citing Infantino’s letter to Taj. “The fact that these important first steps were made, and that I was able to witness it personally, makes it all the more disappointing that it was not possible to keep up the positive momentum and to continue with similar progress.”

He added: “The gates were closed to female spectators during a friendly match between Iran and Syria on June 6. It would also appear that security forces detained several women seeking to attend the match for several hours. Unfortunately, this is, I also have to say, not in line with the commitments given to us in March 2018 by President [Hassan] Rouhani when we were assured that important progress would be made on this matter soon.”

“Whilst we are aware of the challenges and cultural sensitivities, we simply have to continue making progress here, not only because we owe it to women all over the world, but also because we have a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the FIFA Statutes,” he noted.

Infantino concluded: “In the circumstances, I would be very grateful if you could inform FIFA, at your earliest convenience but no later than July 15, 2019, as to the concrete steps which both the FFIRI and the Iranian state authorities will now be taking in order to ensure that all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so will be allowed to buy tickets and to attend the matches of the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, which will start on September 2019.”

According to AP, Taj has replied to Infantino’s letter, saying that “the matter has been taken up directly with the minister of sports and youth.”

Taj and his predecessor, Ali Kafashian, have been ardent supporters of women attending sports events at large stadiums, arguing that male football fans behave much better around female spectators.

However, authorities’ real fear and concern is that a large crowd in sports stadiums may spark spontaneous anti-regime protests which could spill into the streets.

[Translated from Persian by Fardine Hamidi]