TEHRAN, Iran, Oct 10 – Waving flags and snapping selfies, thousands of Iranian women on Thursday attended a football match freely for the first time in decades, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial stadium restrictions.
Elated female fans wore the national green, white and red flag around their shoulders and over their hair as they streamed into a tiny section of Tehran’s 100,000-capacity Azadi Stadium for Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia.
Some donned sporty hats over their headscarves, while others painted their faces with the colours of the flag.
Their beaming smiles underscored a day that felt victorious for Iranian women, even before the match began.
And with every goal the Iranian team scored, the cheers in the women’s section grew louder.
By the middle of the second half, Iran was leading with a blowout of 9-0.
For nearly 40 years, the Islamic republic has barred female spectators from entering football and other sports stadiums, with clerics arguing women must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.
Last month, world football’s governing body FIFA ordered Iran to allow women access to stadiums without restriction and in numbers determined by demand for tickets.
– ‘Women of freedom’ –
That came after the death of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself ablaze last month outside a court in fear of being jailed for trying to attend a match.
Dubbed “Blue Girl” because of the colours of the club she supported — Esteghlal FC — she had reportedly been detained last year when trying to enter a stadium dressed as a boy.
Her death sparked an outcry, with many calling for Iran to be banned and matches boycotted.
Around 4,500 women managed to get their hands on tickets for Thursday’s match, which was thinly attended overall, with only some 10,000 spectators in total.
Even before the starting whistle blew, female fans cheered joyfully as the name of each Iranian player was announced over the loudspeakers, an AFP journalist at the stadium said.
But many women who were unable to get tickets in time for the game were left disappointed.
“I’m 18 years old, and for 14 years I’ve dreamt of going to a stadium,” student Guelareh told AFP. “But I didn’t get a ticket.”
While it is not the first time women have attended football matches in Iran, it is the first time they have been allowed to buy tickets.
On previous occasions, attendees have been handpicked by the authorities.
Saluting the move, pro-reform newspaper Sazandegui published a photograph of two female football supporters, coupled with the headline: “The women of freedom.”
For some men too, Thursday’s game was worthy of celebration.
“It’s a great feeling that we’re here together, finally. We only wish this can continue in the future,” a male fan told AFP.
A FIFA delegation attended Thursday’s match to ensure Iran honoured its pledge to allow women in.