World Cup ban? Iran's women just don't care

Iranian women aren't allowed to enter national stadiums or gather with men to watch sport in public. But many have defied the authorities during the World Cup, cheering on their team in local restaurants. Claire Cohen reports.

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Image: Getty

Iran’s female football fans have openly defied their country’s regime. How? By watching the World Cup in the company of their male family and friends. Over the past two weeks - before their national team crashed out of the tournament - women were spotted in cafes and restaurants, in the company of men, enjoying Iran’s most popular sport.

By law, such behaviour is illegal. Men and women aren’t permitted to gather together in public places to watch matches. Women are also banned from entering stadiums.

Iranian authorities imposed the rule following the 1979 revolution, stating that mixed crowds were ‘un-Islamic.’ So, for the past three decades (aside from two brief periods in 2005 and 2013 when women were allowed to watch volleyball) the spectators at all sporting events have been entirely male.

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Live broadcast of matches are delayed by a few seconds to ensure that any women accidentally caught on camera are censored and not shown on TV. While women are not allowed to appear on football billboards.

Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad apparently called for the ban to be permanently lifted in 2006, but was opposed by senior clerics. Hardliners argue that it’s not appropriate for women to attend such events, because men are lewd and the players wear shorts, so are not fully dressed.

Two days before the 2014 World Cup kicked-off, restaurateurs were warned by the authorities not to show the games, as it might cause ‘problems’ (although many have defied the ban). The president of the Coffee Shop Owners Union told ISNA news agency that “we have told our members that during the World Cup games they must either turn the TV off or switch to a channel which is not broadcasting the games.” Cinema owners were also banned from showing the games to mixed crowds and told to segregate men and women.

But that hasn't stopped many women gathering in eateries, mingling with the opposite sex and smoking Shisha pipes - ignoring any jeers or taunts.

Those female fans who actually travelled to Brazil to attend World Cup matches faced criticism on social media.

It's a devastating blow for Iran's female population. Football is highly popular among many Iranian women, despite the religious rules that bar them from watching matches between male teams.

Last summer, when Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup, huge celebrations were held inside Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. Pictures showed distraught women outside its doors – banned from entering.

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Image: @Kmehrr

The move led to furious protests and a number of women were arrested. The Iran Football Federation released a statement which said: “In this ceremony only men are allowed to be present and women who like the national team are asked to avoid coming to the Freedom Stadium."

Other protests have sprung up over the past 35 years. During the late Nineties, the famous ‘White Headscarves’ campaign saw women gather outside stadiums, carrying billboards with the slogan; ‘Women’s Rights Equals Half the Freedom.’ While in 1997, after Iran defeated Australia in World Cup qualification, millions took to the streets - with women breaking down police barriers and storming the stadium.

Granted, watching matches in restaurants might not be quite that dramatic. But Iran’s women refuse to be silenced. They often buy tickets on the black market, or use their male relatives ID numbers to make purchases online – only to be turned away at the stadium, while female fans from the opposing foreign team are waved through the gates.

Extreme measures are called for. Recently, a group of female Iranian volleyball fans managed to sneak into a game, disguised as Brazilian women (ironic, when you consider that members of the Iranian women’s national team were thrown out for not being ‘fully female’).

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Only this week, female fans and journalists were thrown out of the Azadi Stadium during a volleyball game (Iran is in the World League, making this a popular national sport). While a two people were arrested after a group of young men and women without headscarves, released a video in which they sang and danced in support of their national football team.

National police chief-general Esmail Ahmadi Moghaddam said it was "not yet in the public interest" for men and women to attend such events together and a small group of protestors was arrested.

Iran’s female population argues that the law is outdated and that it’s more exciting for sports fans when groups can gather together. "We have rights too. We should be able to go to games," Negar Valayi told CNN. "[It's] 100 percent it's better this way," she continued. "It doesn't happen often. It would be great if we have more of this."

According to state media, the ban has compelled female Vice President Shahindokht Molaverdi to investigate. While Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was pictured at home, wearing a tracksuit and watching Iran’s first round clash with Nigeria. Mr Rouhani has reportedly ordered an official investigation into whether women should be allowed to attend men’s football matches, a practice currently forbidden under the country’s Islamic laws.

Whether any changes will be in place in time for the 2018 World Cup remains to be seen.