First game v ENG 21/11/22 @13:00 GMT, Khalifa International Stadium
Words by Ili Hyseni
For nearly 6 weeks, thousands have taken to the streets in cities across Iran to call for greater freedoms for women and an end to the abuse the people have suffered at the hands of the government. Initially sparked by the death of 22 year old student Mahsa Amini, the protests have swelled into an unprecedented show of defiance against the government and Supreme Leader, Ali Khomenei. Now, the events in Iran are threatening to derail not only Iran’s World Cup preparations but the team’s participation in Qatar too.
These set of stamps commemorate the female footballers and fans who have been persecuted for their love of the beautiful game. During 40 years of the Islamic Republic, the development of the women’s game has been held back by what the critics call repressive, medieval measures.
In September 2019, FIFA ordered that female fans be allowed in to stadiums to watch games, threatening to ban the Iranian football federation from competitions. This came after outcry following the death of Sahar Khodayari, a fan who died after she set herself alight after she was caught trying to enter a stadium disguised as a man. Bowing to the pressure from FIFA and rights organisations, the Iranian government decided to allow 100 women in to watch a friendly game against Bolivia, but any hopes that this would become the norm were quickly shot down when the prosecutor general claimed the next day that the event would not be repeated, claiming it would “lead to sin”.
Using moral/religious reasons for implementing the ban on female spectators is commonplace in Iran. Religious clerics, who play a major role in decision making, often claim that women should be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and the sight of male footballers displaying skin.
In August this year Copa 90 and Goal Click brought readers the story of Maryam Majd. The first female sports photographer in Iran, she became the first female photographer from the country to receive FIFA accreditation. Speaking on the situation facing female footballers, Maryam explained how the future of the game in her country is not bright. “Everything is different in my country. It is not one person who decides on women’s football. There are groups that are not from the football family, but they are the final decision makers.”
The Iranian government have adopted a policy of placating FIFA, allowing females fans to watch games in a bid to stave off pressure and then quickly reverting back to type; implementing the ban for long periods of time. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch found evidence of women being banned from entering a stadium in Mashhad city, Ali Khomenei’s city of birth. Evidence on social media showed female fans being repelled from the stadium bounds by police who sprayed pepper spray to disperse the women. In response to protests from fan groups and rights organisations, Attorney General Mohamad Jafar Montazeri said that selling tickets to female fans while not allowing them into the stadium was unacceptable, while President Raisi promised an investigation into the matter. Despite the promise of action, evidence of arrests, beatings and abuses against women continues to mount.
While protesting against the government can come with severe penalties in Iran, several high profile current and ex-footballers have risked their livelihoods to make a public stand against the oppression of women. Star striker and Bayer Leverkusen forward Sardar Azmoun took to instagram to show his support from the recent demonstrations saying:
“Because of the national team rules we couldn’t say anything until the WC training camp was over. But I couldn’t bear it anymore. At worst I’ll be dismissed from the national team. No problem. I’d sacrifice that for one hair on the heads of Iranian women. This story will not be deleted. They can do whatever they want. Shame on you for killing so easily; long live Iranian women."
Iranian footballers have a history of making a stand against the government. In 2009, the national team players wore green armbands in support for the protests following the presidential elections that year.
Other ex-pros have followed Azmoun’s example with Mehdi Mahdavikia accusing the government of "alienating and ignoring the people". Meanwhile legendary striker Ali Daei, told the President to "solve the problems of the Iranian people rather than using repression, violence and arrests". Daei has been a strong advocate of women’s rights, often calling for women to be allowed in to stadiums. Following his decision to speak up, Daei’s passport was revoked leaving him unable to leave the country and sparking fears for his safety. It has since been reported that his documents have been returned.
Looking ahead to World Cup, there are fears that the political turmoil will affect Team Melli and their attempts to make the last 16 of the tournament for the first time. Led by Carlos Quieroz, Iran are in a group with symbolic political importance. They’ll be going up against countries well known for their opposition to the Iranian regime. Matches against the US and England have the potential to be politically charged, with the threat of fan protests before and during the games; something the Qatari government, an ally of Iran, is unlikely to tolerate.
Earlier this month Open Stadiums, a group that advocate for the rights of female fans, called on FIFA to ban Iran from the World Cup finals because of the governments treatment of women. OS wrote in a letter to the world governing body that “the Iranian FA is not only an accomplice of the crimes of the regime. It is a direct threat to the security of female fans in Iran and wherever our national team plays in the world. Football should be a safe space for us all.” With Iranian fans calling for their own team to be banned from the tournament, the letter represents just how desperate the situation facing football in the country has become.
Iran kick off their campaign against England on the 21st November and whatever happens the next few weeks will prove to be a nail biting time for Team Melli and Iran.