Iran’s Women Football Fans Fenced off After Decades-Long Ban Lifted

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Oct 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The sister of Iran‘s national football captain said the lifting of a ban on women in stadiums for Thursday’s World Cup qualifier did not go far enough, with many female fans unable to buy tickets even though seats were available.

Maryam Shojaei, who made international headlines when she protested against the ban at last year’s World Cup in Russia, said she was angered to see women and men separated by bars in Tehran’s 78,000 capacity Azadi Stadium.

“This is not what we’ve fought for,” Shojaei tweeted before the match against Cambodia which Iran won 14-0.

Under pressure from world governing body FIFA, Iranian authorities allocated seats to women in four sectors of the stadium, lifting a ban in place for over 40 years.

“It’s a good thing, but part of me is very angry, especially about the bars between the women and men,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Shojaei said only 3,500 tickets were allocated for women even though there were many empty seats in the stadium.

“This is a direct example of gender discrimination when there are thousands of empty seats and women can’t buy tickets. Many women are very angry,” she said by phone from Turkey.

Shojaei called on FIFA to ensure that Iran lifts the ban completely and permanently so that women have the same access to tickets as men for all matches countrywide.

Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said he viewed women’s presence at the stadium as a positive step, according to the official IRNA news agency.

“The infrastructure of Azadi stadium is ready for the presence of women. But the cultural and mental infrastructure must be ready,” he added.

One reason given for the ban is that it protects women from hearing fans swear. A report posted by the semi-official Fars news agency warned that women attending Thursday’s match could be exposed to foul language, drug use and even violence.

But Shojaei said the ban was “very embarrassing” and out of step with modern Iran.

“I don’t think these bars will protect women from vulgar and coarse words,” she added.

“It’s very odd. Why can we sit next to each other in other public spaces, but not in stadiums? If a guy wants to go to a match with his 10-year-old daughter he can’t.”

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”Iranian women fans arrive to attend Iran’s FIFA World Cup Asian qualifier match against Cambodia, as for the first time women are allowed to watch the national soccer team play in over 40 years, at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, Iran October 10, 2019.. REUTERS./” align=”center” lightbox=”off” captionsrc=”custom” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]


FIFA stepped up pressure on Iran following the death of football fan Sahar Khodayari last month, who set herself on fire in protest at her arrest for trying to get into a match.

Video footage posted on Twitter showed some supporters chanting “Blue Girl, Blue Girl” – a reference to the colours of Khodayari’s team, Esteghlal.

Shojaei said Khodayari’s death had changed attitudes among the public, but not officials.

The activist said she believed the stadium ban had become symbolic for officials who she thought feared that women would demand more rights if they caved in.

“I think they think that if they give in on this they will have to give in on other things,” she added.

Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the ban was never just about sport.

[aesop_image img=”” panorama=”off” credit=”FILE PHOTO: Saint Petersburg Stadium, Saint Petersburg, Russia – June 15, 2018 General view as a steward talks to fans displaying a banner referencing Iranian women during the match REUTERS/Dylan Martinez” align=”center” lightbox=”off” captionsrc=”custom” captionposition=”left” revealfx=”off” overlay_revealfx=”off”]

“The only logic for keeping this hated ban in place for so long is that, if this ban fell, women would insist on other basic rights – and they absolutely should,” she added.

HRW said women photographers had been banned from covering Thursday’s match and that it had lodged a complaint with FIFA.

Iran is still not playing by the rules,” Worden said. “The ban is crumbling, but it’s not gone.”

No one at FIFA was immediately available for comment.

Shojaei’s campaign attracted international attention last year when she raised a banner during Iran‘s World Cup matches with the slogan: “Support Iranian women to attend stadiums #NoBan4Women”.

On Thursday she said her brother Masoud supported lifting the ban and she believed most other players did too.

“My mother used to go and watch matches all the time when she was young, but she has never seen her son play,” she said.

“We are very proud of him, but we are not proud of this situation.”

Shojaei, who has protested at international matches for five years, launched an online petition ahead of last year’s World Cup which she submitted to FIFA in June.

“We will keep working on this until the day it is normal for women to watch football just like in other places in the world,” she added.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit