Some 4,000 girls and women attended a World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia at the Azadi stadium in Tehran, the Iranian capital, on October 10. It was the first time since 1981 female fans in Iran have been allowed to watch a men’s football match. Two of the women present told The Observers how it felt.
Women have been banned from attending football stadiums since the earliest days of the Islamic Revolution. In recent years, some female fans run the risk of punishment by slipping into stadiums dressed as men.
In March, 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari, known as #Bluegirl, was caught while trying to enter Azadi Stadium to watch her team Esteghlal and as a result, she was briefly imprisoned. When she heard on September 3 that she could face six months in prison, she set herself on fire and died a few days later.
READ MORE: Iran’s #BlueGirl dies after setting herself on fire in football-ban protest
Khodayari’s death caused outrage in Iran and put pressure on the country’s rulers to ease the ban on women attending matches. FIFA threatened sanctions if Iran did not allow women to attend qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup.
The authorities eventually announced the sale of some 4,000 tickets for the Iran-Cambodia match. An AFP journalist estimated there were around 4,500 girls and women in Azadi stadium for the match, and 6,000 men. Iran beat Cambodia, 14-0.
Female fans waiting outside Azadi stadium for the October 10 match.
“It was about more than just football”
Zahra, a 26-year-old teacher, explained why she attended the match.
“I’m a football fan. I’ve always loved football. I play with my friends and family – boys and girls – so, of course, I wanted to see the match. But for me and I think for many other women there, it was about more than just football: it was about getting back a right that’s been taken away from us for decades. Friends of mine who don’t care anything about football asked me to buy tickets for them too.”
A woman cries as she enters the stadium.
‘When I entered the stadium, I couldn’t hold back the tears’
“I didn’t think it would be that emotional. But when I entered the stadium through the main tunnel when I heard women making all that noise – clapping, cheering and blowing vuvuzelas – and when I saw the green grass of the football field, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I cried and I stayed just there for 10 minutes. It was a dream come true. Many other women were like me, crying and not able to move. That moment was as sweet as the most delicious cookie that I ever tasted in my life.”
“Finally, I found the power to keep going and found a place to sit. Then the magic began. We supported the national team for every one of the 90 minutes. There were some touching moments. It was nice to see advertisements in the stadium for tampons and breast cancer awareness. Not only can we attend a football match, but they’re starting to acknowledge the realities of women’s lives. [Editor’s note: Iranian media seldom discuss menstruation.] I don’t know if the ads were just meant to impress FIFA or not.”
No man did anything wrong to us’
“It was also great to see the reactions of men. Not just near the stadium, but all through the city on our way to the match when men saw us with flags etc, they smiled and congratulated us.
We’ve been told for years that stadiums are a bad place for women because of violence and impolite behavior. But yesterday was one of the rare days that no man did anything wrong to us, not at the stadium or in the city. There’s no doubt that I’m going to go see the next match.”
They told us not to chant in memory of #BlueGirl’
Fatemeh, 34, is a financial consultant at a Tehran business and a lifelong football fan. She also attended the October 10 Iran-Cambodia match.
“It was stupid to sell tickets online. They opened the online sales in the middle of the night last Saturday without informing people. The tickets sold out in a few minutes. I was lucky that my friends warned me ‘Buy a ticket right now!’ They ended up selling about 3,200 tickets to women. Thousands of other women couldn’t get them, while the men’s parts of the stadium were empty. Lots of women who couldn’t get tickets gathered outside the stadium hoping to get in. But they couldn’t.”
Female fans who were admitted to Tehran’s Azadi stadium ask the police to let in women who are waiting outside. Video sent by Fatemeh.
“When I reached the stadium, I had tears streaming down my face, like everyone else. There were many female police officers, warning us nonstop about our hijab. They told us not to chant in memory of the “Blue Girl”.
When the match began, I noticed something awkward that bothered me. We women had no idea how to cheer like people do normally in the stadiums. How to chant slogans or how to sing a particular fan song to support a player when he needs it. There are unwritten traditions for all of this in stadiums, but we don’t know them. It was sad for me.”
Female fans in the stadium. Video sent by Zahra.
“We need to attend many more matches to learn them. We wanted to chant the same slogans as the men, but there weren’t that many men present and we were kept so far away from them that we could barely hear what they were chanting. But at the end of the day, there’s no doubt: I’m coming to the next match.”