Armed with a flag and a horn, Niloufar* is about to do one thing she has by no means performed.
Come Thursday afternoon, the 36-year-old translator might be setting foot on Tehran’s Azadi Stadium – however she won’t be there for the football. As an alternative, her purpose is to assert a “easy and fundamental proper” as for the primary time because the institution of the Islamic republic in 1979, Iranian authorities have allowed ladies to purchase tickets to attend a males’s soccer match.
“I can not deny how completely happy I’m to lastly have the ability to go to the stadium, and I do know I might be very emotional as soon as there,” she stated.
“It feels nice to take again what’s yours.”
Together with Niloufar, segregated from a often loud male crowd that has lengthy monopolised the 79-000-capacity venue, greater than 3,000 different ladies might be cheering on because the Iranian nationwide staff takes on Cambodia for a World Cup qualifier.
The primary 850 tickets allotted to ladies had been sold out in “a few minutes”, main the Iranian soccer authorities final week to place extra on sale.
Stress on Iran to permit ladies to attend males’s soccer matches elevated final month following the loss of life of Sahar Khodayari, which sparked widespread outrage. The 29-year-old, dubbed “Blue Lady” on-line as a result of color of her staff’s jersey, died of her wounds after setting herself on fire outdoors a Tehran courtroom upon studying she may very well be imprisoned for trying to sneak right into a stadium disguised as a person.
Whereas it has by no means been a regulation, the ban on ladies attending males’s soccer matches has been enforced since 1981 as a part of a algorithm that self-discipline ladies’s gown and presence in public areas, in response to the Iranian authorities’ interpretation of Islam. The nation’s conservative leaders have additionally pointed to sports activities amenities not being appropriated for girls as a part of their reasoning for the transfer, citing the shortage of feminine restrooms.
The ban, which additionally extends to volleyball and basketball matches, has been momentarily relaxed up to now, however activists concur that the match on Thursday is a “first official step ahead”.
Their enthusiasm, nevertheless, of girls being allowed to purchase tickets similar to males was swiftly tempered by the imposition of a cap limiting their attendance to only 5 p.c of the venue’s capability.
“As a matter of human rights and in response to FIFA’s personal statues, the cap should not be in place,” Minky Worden, director of worldwide initiative at Human Rights Watch, stated.
“That’s gender discrimination which creates dangers.”
In the meantime, questions loom over what is going to occur to these ladies who’re anticipated to indicate up on the stadium, even and not using a ticket.
“I favor to be life like as a result of we’ve got already been by way of lots – from beatings, to arrests, to self-immolations,” Niloufar stated. “So why not be frightened?”
Like Niloufar, Maryam Shojaei, a ladies’s rights campaigner and the sister of the captain of the Iranian nationwide staff Masoud Shojaei, prefers to be cautious.
“After a long time, the taboo is damaged,” she stated. “However we’ve got to watch out because the state of affairs is unpredictable; we’ve got to see how the authorities will react”.
Usually coming at a excessive price, the ladies’s struggle in opposition to the ban – one in all many undertaken lately by activists defying such practices or legal guidelines with acts of civil disobedience – stretches again a few years.
“We’d go to protest at each single nationwide match,” recalled Sara, a member of the OpenStadiums community of feminists, activists and journalists, who started demonstrating in entrance of Azadi Stadium in 2005. “Generally they [the authorities] would beat us, throw us punches, kicks or arrest us.”
In 2006, after high clerics adopted a harsher rhetoric over the ban and the authorities’ response turned extra violent, OpenStadiums started documenting police behaviour, sending recorded supplies and signed petitions to FIFA, the world soccer’s governing physique, and the Asian Soccer Confederation (AFC).
“It was arduous to place our voice on the market as a result of there have been no social media,” Sara stated.
In 2013, she determined to create the OpenStadiums Twitter account to draw the eye of former FIFA President Sepp Blatter earlier than his arrival within the Iranian capital for a sport.
Blatter later stated that in a gathering with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani throughout his Tehran go to, he urged him “to contemplate that half of the nation who can’t attend the match”. Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, has additionally talked about the ban throughout talks with Rouhani.
‘FIFA is accountable’
However Iranian activists have lengthy expressed disappointment with FIFA over their perceived failure to drive change regardless of quite a lot of petitions. And now, some concern the Iran-Cambodia match may flip right into a publicity stunt to sedate worldwide stress within the wake of Khodayari’s loss of life earlier than the ban is launched once more.
In June 2018, following the detention of a number of feminine followers at a sport between Iran and Syria, Infantino wrote a letter to Iran’s soccer authorities giving them a July 15 deadline to take “concrete steps to make sure that all Iranian ladies might be allowed to purchase tickets”.
But no concrete motion adopted. Then in November 2018, Infantino flew to Tehran for the AFC match remaining the place some 800 ladies had been selectively invited to attend the match. The FIFA president described their presence as “nice progress”, however activists decried it as a “present” to please the worldwide visitor because the ban was reimposed straight after his departure.
Iranian ladies wave Iranian flags throughout a ceremony of farewell for his or her nationwide soccer staff forward of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, on the corridor of Azadi (freedom) sports activities compound in Tehran, Iran. [File: Ebrahim Noroozi/AP Photo]
In the meantime, Infantino’s reaction to Khodayari’s death – a statement affirming the establishment’s “clear and agency” place that “ladies need to be allowed into soccer stadiums in Iran …for all soccer matches” – left activists anticipating more durable motion unimpressed.
“FIFA is liable for Sahar’s loss of life. They’re liable for the truth that I don’t really feel safe in my very own nation,” OpenStadiums stated. “They may have taken critical actions years in the past, however they by no means did. They need to have merely adopted their very own guidelines”.
The world physique has by no means penalised Iran, regardless of its personal statutes and human rights coverage stating that any discrimination in opposition to ladies “is strictly prohibited and punished by suspension or expulsion”.
FIFA didn’t reply when requested about its readiness to sanction Iran if the nation fails to carry the ban past Thursday’s match, pointing to a statement it launched following accusations by Iranian activists of lack of correct motion.
“FIFA introduced that it’ll, primarily based on the operational plans and outcomes of the 10 October 2019 sport, collaborate with the FFIRI in growing an operational protocol and associated necessities for matches within the Iranian soccer league to be opened for girls as properly,” the assertion stated, referring to the Soccer Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
‘We’re shifting forward’
Amid rising worldwide consideration earlier than Thursday’s match, the present administration led by Rouhani, the Iranian president, seems to be in favour of the ban being lifted.
“I feel we’re shifting forward,” Masoumeh Ebtekar, Iran’s vp of household and ladies’s affairs, informed Al Jazeera. “I feel the federal government has made critical efforts to that finish and now we hope to see a sport the place we’ve got ladies sitting within the stadium.”
Balancing between FIFA ban threats and Iran’s Islamic hardliners
However the authorities has to take care of the opposition “from conservatives, hardliners and a few spiritual teams which are robust sufficient to create many issues alongside the way in which”, Saeid Jafari, a political analyst, stated.
On Monday, about 50 spiritual hardliners demonstrated outdoors Iran’s parliament, chanting slogans in opposition to the lifting of the ban.
But their opposition doesn’t appear to discourage the ladies who will attend Thursday’s match – and likewise plan to chant their very own slogans in assist of their favorite staff.
“The poor Cambodian staff,” Niloufar says jokingly. “How unlucky for them to need to face not solely the Iranian footballers, however hundreds of impassioned Iranian ladies.”