When Iran’s national soccer team takes the field today for an otherwise humdrum World Cup qualifier, there will be outsize interest not in the action on the field but in who is seated in the stands.
For the first time in almost four decades, women will be allowed to buy tickets and attend a match.
The game on Thursday between Iran and Cambodia would typically merit little interest as another mismatch between a regional heavyweight and an also-ran in an early qualifier for the 2022 World Cup.
But the match in Tehran is arguably among the most consequential sporting fixtures to be played in years, as women will be watching from seats inside the Azadi, or Freedom, stadium, ending a prohibition that has been bitterly opposed. It comes only one month after a soccer fan died after setting herself on fire in protest of a six-month prison sentence for attending a club game this year.
The ban itself dates from 1981, introduced by hard-line conservatives, and is an unwritten rule that has denied women access to stadiums since then. In recent years, it has been extended to volleyball and basketball as the popularity of those sports has grown.
Iranian women and girls have long tried to overturn — or evade — the ban by organizing weekly protests or disguising themselves as men to slip inside stadiums. While government and soccer officials were unmoved, the activism gradually grabbed the attention of international rights groups and the Iranian public. It was also the subject of a 2006 movie, “Offside,” by famed Iranian director Jafar Panahi.
But it was the September death of the woman who set herself ablaze, that had the biggest impact. The news of her death at age 29 spread widely online with the help of the hashtag #bluegirl — a reference to the color of the Tehran club she supported, Esteghlal.
The outcry quickly grew to include Iranian and international soccer players. Many Iranians — including a former national team captain — called for a boycott of all soccer games until the ban on women in stadiums was lifted.
Within weeks, the president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, said Iranian authorities had assured him that women would be allowed to attend matches, beginning with the World Cup qualifier against Cambodia. For years, FIFA had avoided taking a hard line on Iran’s exclusion of women, but as public pressure increased, it left open the possibility of banning Iran, an Asian soccer powerhouse, from qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup.
In a speech at a women’s soccer conference in Milan in September, Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, told delegates that his organization could no longer wait.
But even as women gained access to the game, activists noted that FIFA appeared to have extracted no assurances from Iran that women would be allowed to attend future domestic and international matches. They also pointed out that Iranian officials had placed an arbitrary cap on the number of women who could attend Thursday’s game.
While Azadi stadium holds more than 78,000 spectators, only a few thousand tickets were reserved for women. Those sold out almost as soon as they became available.
The few lucky ticket holders expressed joy on social media at finally being able to share in the passion for the country’s national soccer team. One woman said she wanted to hug her ticket and cry; another said she would travel to the stadium with her elderly father.
Despite the demand — and the size of the stadium, which was expected to remain largely empty on Thursday — Iranian officials made little effort to increase the allotment.
Once inside, the women will be segregated from men by both empty stretches of seats and metal fencing erected around the sections reserved for women. Fans criticized the enclosure as a “cage.”
“Part of me is happy, but they have basically created a wall,” said Maryam Shojaei, the sister of Iran’s national team captain, Masoud Shojaei, and one of the leaders of the open stadiums campaign. “It’s not what we’ve been asking for. It’s not like everybody can go and sit freely with their brothers, fathers or husbands.”
Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who has for years lobbied FIFA to pressure Iran to lift the ban, said the soccer body should be criticized, given its failure to open the entire stadium to women.
“The women are eager to finally have the ban fall, so much so that a number of them will show up to purchase tickets at the gate and they will show up to protest,” Worden said in a telephone interview. “That creates a really unacceptable situation, an unacceptable risk.”
Still, even the limited concessions to female fans resulted in counter-protests by Iranian hard-liners. One group rallied on the streets of Tehran this week holding banners denouncing what they said was capitulation in the face of pressure from the West.
There were also indications that easing the restrictions will take more than allowing women to attend one game, with media credentials denied to female photographers applying to document the historic match.
Expecting a large number of security forces, some activists said that they planned to stay away from the game. But at least one said she was willing to take the risk.
The woman, who runs the Open Stadiums network and uses the nickname Sara to conceal her identity, left for Europe over concerns for her safety but returned to Iran this week. She said she planned to take her mother to the stadium.
“After everything we’ve been through,” she said, “I just couldn’t not go.”