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When Iran allowed a select group of women into Tehran’s Freedom Stadium to watch the men’s national soccer team play, some Iranian women abroad dismissed it as an inconsequential “trick.” But inside Iran, where women activists have struggled for decades for equal social rights in the face of a tradition of patriarchy, it was a sign of real, albeit slow, progress. President Hassan Rouhani has made loosening social restrictions a part of his agenda since first being elected in 2013. But political setbacks have lessened his ability to push for social changes. “There are many, many sad stories around the country, but in general women are more in power, more in charge of their lives,” says the owner of a Tehran art gallery. Sometimes the sad stories can be turned on their heads. When a gymnast was arrested for posting online videos of herself dancing, she was forced to make a televised confession of immorality. That was too far, for most. “In a society that is thirsty for heroes,” wrote the moderate son of a top cleric, “you managed to transform a once-simple dancer into a social activist, a civil campaigner, a cultural warrior, and a heroine of the new generation.”
For Iran’s ever-striving women’s movement, it was a small but significant step forward: 150 female soccer fans were allowed into Tehran’s Freedom Stadium last Tuesday to watch the men’s national team beat Bolivia, 2-1.
Excited by the historic import of their presence after years of campaigning, the women draped themselves in Iranian flags and flooded social media with exuberant selfies.
The Islamic Republic has banned women from live male sporting events such as soccer and volleyball for most of its 40-year existence.
But this time, the women were provided separate seats, entrances, and bathroom facilities. Most were handpicked national-level soccer players themselves, or worked for the Iranian soccer federation.
Savoring the moment, few left immediately after the game, and not before voluntarily cleaning up trash from their section of the stands.
“For years I passed by you [Freedom Stadium] and you were just a big question mark,” wrote the actress Nafiseh Roshan on her Instagram page. “What a special feeling to watch football in your country’s best stadium!”
Outside Iran, that benchmark may appear inconsequential, and has even been dismissed by some Iranian women abroad as a “trick” orchestrated by officials to give the appearance of loosening of social rules, while a crackdown and arrests continue.
Slow but deliberate progress
But inside Iran, where women activists have struggled for decades for equal social rights and respect in the face of a tradition of patriarchy – never mind strict social rules since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which require women to cover their hair and mask the shape of their bodies, among other restrictions – entry to the stadium for a live game was the latest sign of slow but deliberate progress.
“There are many, many sad stories around the country, but in general women are more in power, more in charge of their lives,” says Nazila Noebashari, an art gallery owner in central Tehran.
“It hasn’t been easy for Iranian women. But we have also done extraordinary things, all of us,” says Ms. Noebashari. She notes relative progress on laws, on the number of women now serving as local and district officials and in parliament, and how female university students far outnumber males.
“You don’t change a patriarchal society overnight; it’s been centuries of women in dark corners, abused and abandoned even,” says Noebashari. “But now everything has changed and there is no going back. More and more we see independent women ... pushing ahead and all kinds of good stories – and also bad ones.”
President Hassan Rouhani has made loosening social restrictions a popular part of his declared agenda since first being elected in 2013. He has criticized over-zealous gasht-e ershad morality police patrols, for example, for “holding onto people’s collars on the streets,” stating that is “not the right way of instructing virtue.”
But in Iran social change is inextricably tied to the vertiginous oscillations of politics, which often pit hard-line officials and clerics against reform-minded politicians and activists. Mr. Rouhani is already under siege by political opponents for failing to improve the economy as he promised after Iran agreed to the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and one result is that many social changes have barely been tangible.
‘Your skin becomes thicker’
“Many taboos are being broken, but we’re far from ideal,” says Shahrzad Hemmati, a journalist from the reformist Shargh newspaper who writes about women’s issues.
“We should not depend on [Rouhani’s] government, because government is involved in a fight themselves,” she says. “This is part of it, to be arrested, detained. This is part of history to stand, to be strong. There is a saying in Persian that ‘your skin becomes thicker,’ like a rhinoceros.”
Still, women’s activists have had the support of several female members of Parliament. The MPs joined the activists in June, sitting on the track at Freedom Stadium to ensure that women – after a noisy public fight – were allowed in to watch on video screens as Iran’s national soccer team played World Cup matches in Russia.
“This is progress, but we can’t say a huge circle is opening before us,” says Ms. Hemmati. “Everything we do with civil rights is political in Iran. They treat us like these are anti-man, anti-religious things. Even when you see good and positive steps are taken, other roads are closed.”
Lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri, from the president’s “Hope” faction, speaks proudly of her role producing the “empowering women” elements of Iran’s 6th five-year development plan, put forward in March 2017, which dealt with family issues and promoted women in the workforce. She notes a doubling of women in official positions across the board, from local and municipal posts to national office in recent years and says change should be “constant and steady.”
“Women are not that limited or under pressure as [outsiders] say,” says Ms. Salahshouri. “They can go anywhere they want. They can study. There are women entrepreneurs. They can express their demands more explicitly and freely. The image they try to create of an Iranian woman [abroad] is totally different from one who comes to Iran and witnesses it with their own eyes.”
From dancer to cultural warrior
Still, there is no shortage of bad-news headlines for the women’s movement. A young Iranian gymnast, Maedeh Hojabri, was arrested over the summer for posting online videos of herself dancing, for example. She was forced to confess to creating “immoral” videos on state-run television, in an episode that was widely condemned, even by hard-liners.
The arrest and confession ended up backfiring.
“That was such a miracle!” wrote Mohsen Bayat Zanjani, the moderate son of a top cleric, in an online post. “In a society that is thirsty for heroes, you managed to transform a once-simple dancer into a social activist, a civil campaigner, a cultural warrior, and a heroine of the new generation.”
Since mid-2017, women protesting mandatory hijab rules by taking part in a so-called #WhiteWednesday campaign – in which they take off their head coverings and hold white headscarves on sticks above their heads – have been arrested one after another.
“The regime is okay with these [protest] campaigns because it is easy to identify people, detain them, and make them afraid to protest again,” says a veteran male journalist who asked not to be named. “You see some campaigns born, then they are no more.”
But videotape of those incidents, as well as footage of morality police squads aggressively challenging reasonably clothed Iranian women, sparked outrage. One event last April went viral.
Actress Taraneh Alidoosti, star of the Oscar-winning film “The Salesman” who has 5.3 million followers on Twitter, echoed many when she wrote of the incident: “Clawing on a woman’s hair and headscarf is not ‘guidance,’ holding the necks of girls for your values is not guidance, it is savagery. This is the ‘patrol of stifling, bullying and barbarism.’ ”
Still, such popular reactions are progress for Iran’s women’s movement. As is one anti-harassment campaign that has taken root, concurrent with the #MeToo movement in the West.
Yellow posters are taped to the walls of restaurants, clothes shops, juice bars, and in underground train stations and in taxis, reminding men that harassing women is a “crime” under Islamic law, and that they should “respect other citizens’ rights.”
Don't be an onlooker
The @harasswatch webpage includes a map of Iran, with each incident of reported harassment marked. These “shared wounds indicate that we should move together” to improve sensitivity, it says.
One poster even shows morality police trying to detain a woman, with the words: “When a lady is being abused, don’t only be an onlooker.”
“People’s views have changed ... and the way people fight has changed; they have the media in their hands,” says journalist Hemmati, who says the poster campaign is especially effective at raising awareness.
“If the morality police arrested you before, girls were so worried that their parents would find out. Now if they are arrested, the parents take flowers to their daughters,” she says. People on the street also actively try to intervene, to prevent arrests – and cheer when people are let go.
Hard-line officials “can’t stop people from thinking and becoming enlightened,” says Hemmati. “The change is cutting through the heart of society, and nobody can stop it.”