Iranian women fight for the right to attend sports events in their country

The World

There's nothing quite like watching sports at the stadium or ballpark — with the crowd, the green grass, the charged atmosphere of competition. But if you're a woman living in Iran, you don't get to experience any of that.

That’s been the case since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Female sports fans aren't allowed to cheer for their teams inside stadiums — they can only watch on TV.

The topic has gotten a lot of attention recently thanks to the exceptional performance of the Iranian volleyball team. In World League volleyball matches, Iran's team beat the powerhouse Italian and Brazilian teams.

Keep in mind that volleyball — or even soccer — isn’t Iran's strongest suit. Wrestling? Yes. Volleyball? Not so much. So you can imagine how excited Iranians are to see these teams do so well at an international level.

But a big part of their fan base is forced to watch from behind closed doors. It’s not illegal for women to attend sporting events, says Leila Mouri, an Iranian women’s rights activist now living in New York, just forbidden.

“The reality is there is no legal issue," she says. "There is no legal ban. There is even no religious fatwa or any religious order against women attending sports stadiums."

In the case of volleyball and basketball women have been able to enter games in most occasions. The ban came about more recently.

As for soccer, women have not been able to get into stadiums but there has been some exception.

For example during the 2006 World Cup qualifying games when Iran played against Qatar, women did manage to enter the stadium.

Overall, women have long opposed this unwritten ban. But in 2006, they organized, forming a group called “Roosari Sefidha” or "Women in White Scarves.”

“They started this campaign specifically about the right to attend sports stadiums," Mouri says. "They used to wear white scarves and they wrote their slogans on that white scarf." Mouri was a member of the group herself.

Using the scarves was a clever tactic. The idea was that if women wore their slogans on their head coverings, which they’re required to wear in public, the morality police wouldn’t be able to remove them.

Mouri remembers one of the sit-ins she joined. "We rented a bus and went in front of the stadium and I remember we had a very small TV with us," she says. "Symbolically, we sat in front of the Azadi stadium on the ground and pretended that we are watching the match."

Then they asked to go into the stadium. "They didn’t let us in," Mouri remembers. "They attacked us and finally they pushed us back and made us get into the bus and return."

For many women in Iran, says Mouri, getting to go to stadiums is about entertainment. It’s fun to watch live sports. But it’s also about basic human rights.

Stadiums are public spaces, she insists, and women should be allowed in there, just like men.

Some Iranian men agree. Filmmaker Jafar Panahi famously made a movie called "Offside" about a group of avid female soccer fans who want to get into a stadium to watch a match. They even dress up as boys.

“Watching soccer in a stadium isn’t a crime," one of the girls says in the film as she pleads with the stadium security guards. But the guard isn't buying it. "I don't make the rules," he yells back.

As if being excluded from stadiums isn’t bad enough, the authorities have a double standard when it comes to foreign women. If you’re a woman from another country and your team is playing in Iran, you can get into a stadium.

“As an Iranian, I think it’s really humiliating that you are not allowed [in stadiums] and you don't have the same right in your own country as a foreign person has," Mouri says.

Two weeks ago, Iranian media reported that a group of Iranian women managed to sneak into a volleyball game between Brazil and Iran by wearing Brazil's jerseys. They all had big smiles on their faces in the pictures.

So, what is the official explanation for the ban? There isn’t any.

One argument goes something like this: emotions in stadiums tend to run high. That leads to foul language, which is disrespectful to women. 

But activists such as Mouri think it’s more about limiting the mingling of the sexes, or perhaps the government’s fear of mass gatherings.

The Iranian volleyball team could surely use the loud and ferocious cheers of its female supporters at the national stadium in Tehran. In one final irony, the name of Tehran's stadium is “Azadi" — which means "Freedom" in Persian.

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