Watching the World Cup in Iran: Women on the sidelines

Women and men cheer on their teams while watching the World Cup on TV in Tehran. But if the games were hosted in Iran, women would be barred from attending.

Leonhard Foeger
Had this World Cup group stage match been played in Tehran rather than Belo Horizonte, Brazil, women wouldn't have been able to watch with men as Argentina's Lionel Messi put the ball past Iran's Reza Ghoochannejhad and into the net in Iran's 1-0 loss to the World Cup finalists on June 21, 2014.

The World Cup game is projected large onto the wall of the packed Tehran café, 14 feet across and 9 feet high. In the late-night crowd, women and men leap out of their chairs, cheering together at every goal, and moaning in unison with every near-miss.

All the drama of the Beautiful Game is here in HD, on the café wall, and on Iranian national TV – as it will be for the World Cup finals this weekend.

But if these soccer games were being played in Iran, no women would be able to go watch them in the stadiums – in keeping with rules of the Islamic Republic.

“We’re very sad about that,” says Shiva, a business graduate whose red lipstick matches her headscarf, during the halftime break.

“Maybe they want to ‘protect’ women, because men become very enthusiastic and hyped up – they might do something out of their control,” she says. “It’s the law, as every country has laws. But if they can decide to let women in, we welcome it.”

Shiva’s calm response is pure diplomacy compared to that of many Iranian women who see their banning from soccer stadiums – and now volleyball arenas – as part of a broader and long-standing contest between women and the Islamic Republic. Rules range from banning women from sporting events to conventions about wearing a veil, known as hijab, how much hair is permissible to see.

Many women prefer to cover up in traditional manner, yet plenty of others prefer not to be told what they can’t do, or can’t wear.  

“When they ban women [from stadiums], in fact they want to control the whole society,” says one female Iranian soccer fan who asked not to be named. “Women’s bodies have always been a tool that the Islamic Republic uses to define its level of Islamicness. But it reflects a kind of antagonism toward a big part of society.”

“They might not be allowed to go to stadiums, but no one can force [women] to change their way of [loosely] wearing hijab,” says this female fan.

'Duty' at home

The resistance is obvious. In response to some official views that a woman’s “duty” is at home, one graffiti image went viral on social media, of a scowling Iranian woman in a national soccer team T-shirt. She is drawn wearing rubber dishwashing gloves and holding aloft a yellow bottle of “cup” washing liquid – as if it were the golden World Cup trophy.

Also gone viral in recent months is a “stealthy freedom” campaign on Facebook and Twitter – both officially filtered in Iran, though most senior officials seem to have accounts. For this, Iranian women photograph themselves outside, their hair flowing freely.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently heralded Iran’s women as the backbone of society and rejected the Western concept of gender equality. He praised “security of women in the family environment” and their “opportunity in housekeeping for talents to bloom.”

Those remarks on Women’s Day were in contrast to those made by centrist President Hassan Rouhani, who called for equal status for women.

Iranian women have reached high office – as vice presidents and parliamentarians – and populate many professions from law to medicine, among them Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. More than half of university students are women.

Still, women volleyball fans were beaten and a number arrested outside a Tehran arena last month, and prevented from watching international matches hosted in Iran.

“In the current conditions, the mixing of men and women in stadiums is not in the public interest,” Iran’s police chief said. “We can’t allow women to enter stadiums.”

Several conservative female MPs criticized women who were sports fans.

“We should not be deceived by a group of women and girls that are making a slur and escalate it through the media,” MP from Isfahan, Nayyereh Akhavan Bitaraf, told the Payam No website. She said the arrested fans were not true representatives of Iranian women.

One MP from Tehran, Fatemeh Alia, said: “Women’s job is taking care of their children and husband, not watching volleyball matches.”

The comments provoked a social media firestorm, which included creation of a page for Ms. Alia, asking her to leave her job in parliament and return to her “main duty” at home.

The volleyball ban also prompted a letter from 130 female activists to the president of the International Volleyball Federation.

“We demand an end to gender discrimination in the sports stadiums and believe that the Iranian society is not an island isolated from the rest of the planet,” the letter read.

'Lost cause'?

At local soccer games, Iranian fans describe crude and obscene chants directed by men at the referees and players. But that did not stop women from campaigning for years to attend.

At the café showing the World Cup games, Shiva’s boyfriend Reza says that a section of the stands should be reserved for women only.

But he noted that even when former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – at the peak of his populist powers – tried to open the stadium gates to women, the effort failed. Mr. Ahmadinejad argued that women and families brought “morality” and “chastity” to public venues, but he was slammed by conservative clerics.

“Maybe it’s one of the last pillars of the traditional interpretation of Islam – and they are holding onto it with all their might, they won’t let go,” says a veteran Iranian cultural observer who asked not to be named.

He says: “Why do they invest so much in a kind of lost cause, when you can look at this younger generation, and see what they want?”

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