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Iranian women call on Fifa to end stadium ban

Making plea: a banner is unfurled in the stands during Iran’s World Cup group B match against Morroco last week (Photograph by Themba Hadebe/AP)

Eighteen influential Iranian women living in the West, published an open letter to Fifa on Friday calling on the organisation that governs international football to help put an end to a decades-old ban on women attending male sporting events in Iran.

The issue has become a major storyline at this year’s World Cup being held in Russia, as women inside Iran push for the right to attend games freely.

“The disconnect between the people of Iran and the Government of Iran on this issue is glaring: Iran’s is a celebratory culture; even as the people face serious economic and political strains, they are jubilant as they watch their team,” the letter states.

Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, visited Tehran this year and met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Infantino said at the time that Rouhani had “promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon”.

But there has been no timeline given for when that might actually happen. Activists both inside and outside Iran are making it clear that they have waited long enough.

“A woman’s right to attend events at stadiums is not the only rights violation women experience in Iran,” the signers write.

“Yet it is the same mentality that also prevents Iranian women from travelling alone or from having equal weight in a court of law. By challenging this discriminatory behaviour, one is challenging this mentality in all its applications.”

Last Wednesday, the authorities reluctantly admitted some women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to watch a live broadcast of their national team’s match against Spain.

Iran lost the game 1-0, but many saw the entry of women into the stadium alongside men as an important victory in the struggle for women’s equality in Iran.

“What we need now more than ever is for Iranians to set aside their political differences and agree on one thing: human rights,” Nazanin Boniadi, an actor and board member of the Centre for Human Rights in Iran, told me on Friday.

“We are 18 Iranian women, of various political persuasions, who have joined in solidarity with those who are being shut out and silenced in Iran.”

The crack in Tehran’s petrified policy of gender segregation was welcomed by observers around the world. Among them was top Spanish player Sergio Ramos, who posted a tweet that included a link to images of the women in Azadi stadium. “They are the ones who won tonight,” Ramos wrote. “Hopefully the first of many.”

Authorities have long contended that the ban is intended to protect women from the brutish behaviour of male sports fans, a claim that most opponents of the rule see as just another sign of the regime’s ingrained misogyny.

“The image of women and men standing shoulder to shoulder — safe and exuberant — to watch this match on the big screen demonstrates clearer than anything else the utter falseness of any reasoning behind the ban,” the letter continues.

The letter’s signers represent a cross-section of prominent Iranian women who have thrived in their professional lives in North America and Europe in ways they wouldn’t have been able to in their homeland.

Among them: Shirin Ebadi, the only Iranian Nobel laureate; US diplomat Goli Ameri; legendary Iranian singer Googosh; and several actors, including Academy Award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo and former Saturday Night Live cast member Nasim Pedram.

They may live outside Iran today, but there can be little question that their words will resonate with many women — and hopefully the regime’s male decision-makers — who remain in the country.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Washington Post’s correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016