For the first time in over four decades, the authorities in Iran have allowed female fans to attend a men's league match. However, this may have been mainly motivated by a threat issued by FIFA.
They wore blue and white hats, hung the flag of their club, Esteghlal Tehran, around their necks, and some even painted the numbers of their favorite players on their cheeks. Long before Thursday's match between Esteghlal and Mes Kerman kicked off, many female fans were in a boisterous mood outside of the ground.
After all this was the first time in over 40 years that women were allowed to attend a league football match. Just 24 hours earlier, the Youth Affairs and Sports Ministry had announced that about 28,000 tickets would be available to women.
By kickoff, however, there were only 500 women in the stands, as Iran's leadership had allowed only select women to buy tickets. Among them were many of the players' wives.
Other women, like Esteghlal fan Sara (name changed to ensure her safety) of OpenStadiums, a group that campaigns for better access to sporting events for women in Iran, had no chance of getting a ticket.
"You can't imagine how sad and jealous I am that I couldn't buy tickets," Sara told DW. "The number of tickets they sold was so few. They handed lots of tickets to relatives"
Sports reporter Maedeh Alagheman, who covered the match, hopes thing will improve going forward.
"For the first match, you have to accept it in this form by necessity, with just the 500 female spectators," she told DW. "However, it will be unacceptable if it carries on like this in upcoming league games."
Sahar Khodayari was also a football fan who was devoted to her club Esteghlal Tehran. In March 2019, the then-29-year-old dressed up as a man and snuck into Azadi Stadium in Tehran wearing a long coat and a blue fan wig. Women were not allowed to enter the stadium at the time, as the sight of men wearing shorts was considered a sin by the moral guardians who came to power in Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Khodayari was caught and arrested following the game on allegations of "lack of Islamic dress and resistance." She was subsequently sent to jail for three days and was charged with "violating the chastity law, immoral behavior and insulting the guardians of the law."
According to Amnesty International, in September 2019, a Revolutionary Court in Tehran was to hand down the verdict in Khodayari's case, but this was delayed as a judge was unavailable. However, she was reportedly told that she could face a six-month jail sentence.
This is when Khodayari decided to engage in an extreme form of protest; she stood in front of the courthouse, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire. Passersby rushed to put out the flames, but they were too late to prevent her from suffering severe burns, from which she later died.
The funeral was held near her hometown, Qom. The regime had barred her family from attending and banned any reporting on the funeral. However, Khodayari's story went viral on social media. She became known as the "Blue Girl" due to the club colors of Esteghlal, a symbol of protest against the oppression of women in Iran.
Football's world governing body, FIFA, also weighed in on the matter. The organization's president, Gianni Infantino, traveled to Tehran for talks with then President Hassan Rouhani and the then president of the Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran (FFIRI), Mehdi Taj, a few weeks later.
"FIFA reiterated its firm and clear position that women need to be allowed to enter football matches freely and that the number of women who attend the stadiums be determined by the demand, resulting in ticket sales," the organization said in a statement.
"FIFA's position is firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran," the statement said. "For all football matches."
FIFA has previously suspended Iran's FA for noncompliance with statutes.
"The transition committee set up by FIFA after the first suspension in 2007 deliberately deceived the world governing body," Mohammad Heyrani, a former TV sports presenter on Iranian state television, told DW.
"Contrary to FIFA's stipulation, the drafting of the required new version of the statutes of the FFIRI at the time did not prevent political interference in the federation's affairs," Heyrani said.
The Iranian parliament did not accept the autonomy of the FFIRI at any time, the journalist said.
In 2018, under previous pressure from FIFA, the archconservative clergy had allowed stadium gates to be opened to female fans at international matches, but in April 2022 women were again denied entry to the World Cup qualifier between Iran and Lebanon despite having valid tickets. Worse still, security forces outside the stadium reportedly used pepper spray against women who had insisted on being allowed into the stadium as promised.
The FFIRI was once suspended by FIFA for government interference in football matters. The ban, imposed in 2006, was lifted after a few weeks. Now, the FFIRI could face a second ban for similar reason, as well as the failure to comply with the requirement for women to be allowed into the stadiums.
"At present, most Iranians would actually welcome a suspension of their own FA so that the system can be fundamentally rebuilt," Heyrani said.
Sara of OpenStadiums is also ambivalent.
"Football is a sport that gives hope to the people who are dealing with really difficult situations in the country," she said. "We use it as a tool for changes. especially for women's rights. We use sport to open spaces for women in society."
She said she didn't really want to see the FFIRI get suspended again, but "on the other hand, when there are no consequences for human rights violations, you expect FIFA to react and stop these human rights violations."
Responding to questions from DW, FIFA praised the presence of female fans in the stadium. "FIFA was pleased to hear that some women were allowed to attend a league game in Tehran yesterday and commends the football and government authorities for this step in the right direction," the organization said.
Despite all the criticism, for Sara and other football fans, Thursday's match with 500 women in the stands does represent a glimmer of hope.
"We want it (women attending matches) to become an ordinary thing, like going to the cinema," Sara said. "Definitely we will continue to talk to FIFA and they'll put the pressure on Iran's FA to not go back from this."