Waving flags and snapping selfies, thousands of Iranian women on Thursday attended a football match freely for the first time in decades, after FIFA threatened to suspend the country over its controversial stadium restrictions.
Elated female fans wore the national green, white and red flag around their shoulders and over their hair as they streamed into a tiny section of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium for Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia.
Some donned sporty hats over their headscarves, while others painted their faces with the colours of the flag.
Their beaming smiles underscored a day that felt victorious for the female fans, even before the match began.
And with every goal the Iranian team scored, the cheers in the women’s section grew louder.
By the end of the game, the Iranian side had won with a blowout of 14-0.
For nearly 40 years, the Islamic republic has barred female spectators from entering football and other sports stadiums, with clerics arguing women must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.
Last month, world football’s governing body FIFA ordered Iran to allow women access to stadiums without restriction and in numbers determined by demand for tickets.
‘No turning back’
That came after the death of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself ablaze last month outside a court in fear of being jailed for trying to attend a match.
Dubbed “Blue Girl” because of the colours of the club she supported — Esteghlal FC — she had reportedly been detained last year when trying to enter a stadium dressed as a boy.
Her death sparked an outcry, with many calling for Iran to be banned and matches boycotted.
FIFA feted Thursday’s match as “a very positive step forward”.
“FIFA now looks more than ever towards a future when ALL girls and women wishing to attend football matches in… Iran will be free to do so, and in a safe environment,” it said.
“There can be no stopping or turning back now.”
FIFA Foundation CEO Youri Djorkaeff called it “a great first”.
“There must be a beginning, and today, there was a beginning,” he told AFP.
According to an AFP journalist, between 4,000 to 4,500 women watched the game, which was also attended by some 6,000 men.
Initially, only four sections of the stadium were opened to women, allowing for some 3,500 to attend the match, but nearly a thousand more were granted entrance halfway through.
State news agency IRNA had earlier reported that 3,500 women purchased tickets ahead of the match.
For Mojgan, 36, the night was a victory for women that only materialised because FIFA stepped in.
“This was 100 percent an achievement for women,” she told AFP after the match, waiting outside the stadium with her family and friends. “They say it was a domestic achievement, but it happened just because of FIFA pressure,” she added.
Even before the starting whistle blew, female fans cheered joyfully as the name of each Iranian player was announced over the loudspeakers, an AFP journalist at the stadium said.
While it is not the first time women have attended football matches in Iran, it is the first time they have been allowed to buy tickets.
On previous occasions, attendees have been handpicked by the authorities.
Saluting the move, pro-reform newspaper Sazandegui published a photograph of two female football supporters, coupled with the headline: “The women of freedom.”
For some men too, Thursday’s game was worthy of celebration.
“It’s a great feeling that we’re here together, finally. We only wish this can continue in the future,” a male fan told AFP.
‘Lift all restrictions’
But Iranian female football fans may still have a lot to fight for.
FIFA has demanded that Iran allow women to attend all games and not place caps on their numbers.
Mina, a 36-year old sociologist lucky enough to grab a ticket, worries the authorities might not “want this experience to be repeated”.
“But this was our absolute right (to be here), and not a favour,” she told AFP after the match.
On Twitter, critics had used the hashtag #WakeUpFIFA to campaign for more tickets for women.
Amnesty International condemned the limited allocation of tickets for women as a “cynical publicity stunt” following Khodayari’s death.
“The Iranian authorities should lift all restrictions on women attending football matches, including domestic league games, across the country,” the rights group said.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei, a supporter of the move to allow women into stadiums, celebrated the women’s presence in Azadi on Twitter.
“Calm, disciplined, happy, excited, safe, egalitarian and elegant: this was Azadi stadium today, thanks to the presence of our nation’s girls and women!” the official wrote.