Iranian women's fight to watch football in stadiums reaches tipping point
Iran's support in Russia has been impressive.
Thousands of fans celebrated the last-minute winner against Morocco on June 15, and they are now hoping Team Melli can defeat Portugal on Monday to extend their stay at the 2018 World Cup. If nothing else, it will give the female members who have travelled from Iran more chances to see their heroes in the flesh.
This is because the Iranian government has not allowed women into stadiums to see all-male sporting events since 1980, a year after the Islamic revolution, on the grounds they are not suitable places for a women to be, although female fans of foreign teams are allowed in as long as they cover their heads. For years, women have protested outside Tehran's massive Azadi Stadium when the national team played. Some have tried to sneak in disguised, risking arrest by doing so.
"For a fan, going to the World Cup is the pinnacle of football but for me it is extra-special as it is a chance to see my national team players and I can't wait," a fan and resident of Tehran who wished to be known only as Asha told ESPN FC outside the St. Petersburg Stadium.
"But of course, it is ridiculous and wrong that I have to leave my country to see my country play, and I think more people are thinking the same thing."
Signs are promising. Earlier this year, FIFA boss Gianni Infantino said that he had received a promise from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that women would have access to stadiums soon.
High-profile internationals such as Masoud Shojaei have expressed their support, the government allowed women to watch live men's volleyball last year and, after cancelling an open-to-everyone screening of the Morocco game at the Azadi Stadium, authorities changed their mind for the 1-0 loss to Spain and delighted women went along with their families and friends.
"Iranian women's rights activists were glad," Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of communications for the Center for Human Rights in Iran told ESPN FC.
"But they had to protest until the last minute. It's an interesting step but the ban hasn't been officially lifted. We will have to wait and see if the doors will be permanently opened to women in the future."
There have been various kinds of protests, such as a single released earlier this year by all-girl Iranian group Abjeez, titled 'Stadium.' The message is an inspirational one: "The empty seat by your side is my place. To have me by your side is your right. It's my right! Consider me a part of you. I am your equal."
Band member Melody Safavi believes the women will get their way at some point.
"Iranian women are at the forefront of these protests," she said. "They are extremely strong, fearless and creative."
Given regional rivals Saudi Arabia allowed women into three stadiums in January, Iran are now alone in their stance. All top tier arenas in the Kingdom, once facilities such as toilets have been renovated, should be ready for the new Saudi Pro League that starts in August.
"It is disheartening that Saudi Arabia lifted its ban before Iran did," added Ramsey. "Iranian women have been braving harassment and arrests for decades in protest, and are well aware that their peaceful fight is not over yet."
The World Cup has gone rather better for Iran than Saudi Arabia, who were eliminated with a game to spare after defeats to Russia and Uruguay. Fewer fans have made the journey from the Kingdom than Iran, but there was a sizable number excited to be in Moscow ahead of the opening game against the host nation. Many had come with their families from the eastern region of the country as part of a trip organised by one of Iran's oil companies.
"This is my second game because I once watched the national team play in Bahrain," Nadia Ahmad said. "But at home, of course, it has not been possible until this year."
She has not yet attended a game but is looking forward to doing so next season.
"It is clear that we should be able to go and watch and you didn't see people defending it anymore, at least not like before. It is a very simple thing, but when you are told you can't do it then you want to."
It remains to be seen if women, who will sit in special sections, make up a significant proportion of fans at the stadiums next season. Whatever the philosophical or political reasons behind the move, there is also the fact that the average Saudi Pro League attendance was just over 5,000 last season. Clubs can't afford to be turning half of the population away especially when sports authorities have said they want the league to be one of the top 10 in the world within the next few years.
Iran is encountering the same problem also. Attendances outside the twin Tehran titans of Persepolis and Esteghlal are nothing to shout about.
"If they let women watch then we will watch," Asha added. "Who knows, it could be very helpful for the future of Iranian football as it has many problems at home. It will make us stronger."
That means more World Cups, more chances for women to watch their heroes, and if necessary, more pressure on the powers-that-be to open stadiums for all. Until that happens, the campaign and protests will continue.
"The disconnect between the people of Iran and the government on this issue is glaring," read a letter co-signed by a number of prominent Iranian women and sent to FIFA on Friday to demand action from the world governing body.
The women pointed out that on social media, there have been overwhelming messages of support and happiness upon seeing the images from Russia of men and women supporting their country.
"Iran's is a celebratory culture; even as its people face economic and political strains, they are jubilant as they watch their teams."
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.