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Taking a stand

(180627) -- TEHRAN, June 27, 2018 (Xinhua) -- Iranian women take pictures after watching the 2018 FIFA World Cup football group B match between Iran and Portugal on a giant screen at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran, June 26, 2018. (Xinhua/Ahmad Halabisaz)

Iranian women take pictures after watching their country play in the World Cup on a giant screen at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium in June 2018

1st March 2006, Tehran

Outside Tehran’s Azadi national football stadium it felt like a riot was brewing. A 70-strong group of protesters armed with whistles, drums and banners was pushing on the crush barriers and shouting slogans and songs. Iran, I’d been led to believe, is a place where dissent isn’t tolerated. And yet my first taste of the country, a few hours after landing, was a loud and angry protest exclusively made up of women, heads covered, some with faces painted the colours of the Iranian flag, others holding football scarves.

“Not the women again… They come here before every game to protest”

They berated the hundred or so riot officers who had constructed a Kevlar wall blocking them from the stadium, as dozens of men – only men – streamed past unmolested towards the huge gates and that afternoon’s main event, a 2006 World Cup warm-up match between Iran and Costa Rica. None of the passing spectators looked surprised and none looked back. Inside our car my driver tutted. “Not the women again,” he rasped as we slalomed past the protest and through the crowd.

“Again?” I asked, surprised. “Is this normal?”

“They come here before every game to protest,” came the response. Women have been banned from attending football matches in Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But by the mid-2000s a group of the female fans of Team Melli – as the Iranian national football team is known – had decided enough was enough. They started heading to the Azadi (meaning ‘freedom’ in Farsi) Stadium in the western suburbs of Tehran three hours before every home international to demand entry. And every time they were denied and trudged back home.

I wanted to speak to the women and ask about their protest, but the car doors were locked and the driver would not open them. I was firmly told it was not a good idea to try to talk to the women while the police were around. “It’s dangerous,” said my driver.

“It’s not a religious reason why women can’t come to a football match,” added my guide. “They can go to a cinema with a man. It’s the atmosphere: the swearing, the bad language. It’s just not suitable.”

On the day I drove by, the police finally pushed the protesters back towards a fleet of waiting minibuses, and past a huge motivational sign alluding to athletic excellence which adorned the Azadi’s entrance. The sign read: “The Most Powerful Person Is That Who Can Keep Their Hunger.”

An Iranian flag is flown in the Azadi Stadium ahead of the 1st March 2018 match between Persepolis and Esteghlal.
Among the 100,000 spectators was Fifa president Gianni Infantino

March 2018, Tehran

I didn’t know what Sara looked like, or what her real name was. All I knew was the model of her car. I soon discovered that it’s a frustratingly popular model in Tehran. I was standing at a crossroads, at night, outside a metro station in the north of the city, asking baffled drivers parked nearby whether they were ‘Sara’. After half an hour of awkward misunderstandings, I’d started to wonder whether she would turn up at all. Given that she had become one of the best known – but still anonymous – women’s rights activists in Iran, this seemed a distinct possibility.

A few days earlier both Sara and I had been present at the Tehran derby between Persepolis and Esteghlal – one of the fiercest, but least known, rivalries in world football – although only one of us was allowed inside the stadium to watch the game.

The atmosphere in the run-up to the match was intense. Around 40,000 people had arrived an incredible nine hours before kick off. It was virtually full three hours later and by the time the match started there were some 100,000 men packed into the stadium. One half of the stadium was the red of Persepolis, the other the blue of Esteghlal. Inside, two huge portraits of Imam Khomeini, who led the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution, and the Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s current spiritual leader, dominated the stadium, towering over the east stand.

There was also a special guest at the game. Under the portraits of the Imam and the Ayatollah, a sign had been hung between the top and bottom tiers: “Welcome Infantino”. In the VIP section, high up in the stand opposite the portraits, Fifa president Gianni Infantino’s distinctive bald pate was clearly visible.

Outside the stadium, one set of fans was not going to be able to watch their teams play. As the noise of tens of thousands of people drowned out the referee’s whistle, a group of young women, some dressed as men and wearing fake beards in an attempt to slip pass security, were being corralled into police vans. Just as in 2006, women were still not welcome in the ground. And just as in 2006, a group of female fans and activists, Sara among them, were still campaigning against the ban.

Back outside the metro station I eventually found Sara parked next to some bins, her headscarf tied tightly around her head in conservative style. “Sorry I’m late,” she said, apologising for Tehran’s terrible traffic as she leant over, opened the passenger door and invited me in.

It had taken a few days for us to arrange a meeting, using encrypted messages, in a place that was public but not too exposed. I’d taken the metro and switched back several times, in case I’d been followed. Iran is still incredibly difficult and restrictive to report from: on arrival in the country I had been allocated a state- approved ‘translator’ who followed my every move. I’d pleaded tiredness and told him I needed an early night before sneaking out of my hotel unaccompanied.

Sara was taking a huge risk in talking to me – protest is dangerous work in Iran. Last year, Human Rights Watch wrote that the “authorities in the security apparatus and Iran’s judiciary continued to target journalists, online media activists and human rights defenders in an ongoing crackdown, in blatant disregard of international and domestic legal standards”.

As we drove to a nearby restaurant we passed close to Evin prison, the notorious facility where a number of Iran’s political prisoners are held. Sara told me that the prison is known locally as “the University of Evin,” on account of the number of professors, teachers, journalists and activists who have been imprisoned there.

Activists in Iran work within whatever space they can find, taking the best precautions they can. Sara has taken her protest into the digital world, and her @openStadiums Twitter handle has for the past five years been at the forefront of highlighting the absurdities of the stadium ban.

For the love of the game

Sara grew up in Tehran in a small, open-minded, matriarchal family. At home she could be whoever she wanted to be, and she fell in love with watching sport on TV, first volleyball and then basketball, both of which are hugely popular in Iran. At the time she could also freely attend men’s volleyball and basketball matches. For someone who had only known Iran as an Islamic republic, and not the relative personal freedoms enjoyed under the deposed Shah, the power and anonymity of the crowd at these games was intoxicating.

Yet there was one big blind spot. Sara loved football too, thanks to the regular screenings of Argentine soccer matches on TV in the 1990s. But women had been stopped from attending games since 1981. At college, at a time when the more liberal Ayatollah Khatami was still in power, Sara met a group of activists who planned to challenge the ban. “Compared to now, that time felt like how people talk about life here under the Shah,” she told me. Her first protest was in 2006, the same one I had slowly passed. She showed me pictures of that protest, of the banners and scarves which I had seen from the inside of my car. The demonstration, it turns out, hadn’t lasted long. The police put the protesters on a bus and dumped them in the middle of nowhere. When one enterprising woman somehow procured a minibus which took them back to the stadium, they were threatened with arrest, their cardboard placards were ripped up and they were forced to leave.

“To the police we went against the will of the supreme leader… It was not worth the beatings and prison”

A few months later, before Iran’s last warm-up match for the 2006 finals, against Bosnia, the protesters had learned from their mistakes. This time they wrote their slogans not only on placards but on their headscarves, knowing that conservative police officers would not rip them off. “It says, ‘I want half of my share of Azadi’ – Freedom,” Sara explained as she scrolled through her pictures from that period on her phone over cake and Persian black tea. She showed me the white headscarves with the red slogans, a picture of a soldier in fatigues aiming a kick at a female protester; a banner that says: ‘We don’t want to be in Offside, we want to be in the stadium with our brothers.’ Offside was a reference to Jafar Panahi’s award-winning 2006 film, which tells the fictional story of a group of women who dress like men to try to watch the Iran national team play at the Azadi. A vocal supporter of a series of protest groups, Panahi has been hounded by the Iranian authorities. He has been arrested on a number of occasions and is currently barred from leaving the country.

The police at the Bosnia game had been particularly aggressive, Sara told me. Iran had only recently elected the populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president, who surprisingly announced an end to the stadium ban, but was swiftly overruled by the supreme leader. Khamenei’s verdict meant that protests weren’t now just against the political regime, but also against Iran’s highest religious authority, a red line that is rarely crossed. “To them [the police] we went to the Bosnia game against the will of the supreme leader. They were really harsh,” said Sara. “One woman was beaten badly. She was wearing a chador [an enveloping black outfit worn by devout Iranian women] but that was worse. They will normally say that we are not good Muslims for going to this place. But they saw a woman with full chador and they were really angry.” Afterwards the women decided that public demonstrations were too dangerous. “It was not worth the beatings and prison,” Sara said.

At first, sport was seen as a frivolous issue within Iran’s activist community, not one to be taken too seriously when there were bigger problems to deal with, like the compulsory wearing of the hijab or an unfair legal system that discriminated against women at almost every level. So Sara and a few dozen other women instead looked to Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for help, hoping they could exert the pressure needed to overturn the ban. “We sent so much evidence to the AFC,” Sara said. “We sent them newspapers and sound and even went to the AFC to hand them over.” But nothing ever happened.

Some protesters continued to try to gain entry to stadiums. In 2009 23-year-old photographer and activist Maryam Majd successfully entered the Azadi Stadium for Iran’s game against South Korea. A photo of Majd, who had gained entry with away fans and was pictured giving the victory sign was widely circulated – but came at a cost. In 2011 Majd was detained by Iranian security officials on unspecified charges and held in Evin prison until she could raise a reported $100,000 in bail.

The chances of women seeing a football match seemed further away than ever. A ban on women attending volleyball matches was introduced in 2012. Basketball followed suit. In 2013, with the supposedly reformist-minded Hassan Rouhani now in power, Sara restarted her campaign and launched @openStadiums. “I was completely alone. Tweeting these organisations, keeping my identity secret,” she said. “You don’t want to be discovered. I [still] get really afraid.” She has good reason to be scared. In 2014, 25-year-old British-Iranian law graduate Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested and spent five months in Evin prison for protesting outside an international volleyball match from which she was barred.

Iranian activist Maryam Majd gives the victory sign after managing to enter the Azadi Stadium on 11th February 2009. She was later arrested and held in Evin prison

Mehdi Taremi celebrates after Iran takes the lead against Morocco

Extra time

When it was announced that Gianni Infantino would be coming to watch the Tehran derby on 1st March 2018, the activists saw the chance for physical action once again. Sara and others believed that there was no way anyone would be arrested at the game with the Fifa president in attendance. The plan was simple: they would just walk in. Despite all the arrests, there was no actual law against women entering stadiums, she told me. Women were stopped from entering a stadium in 1981 and police have continued to block entry ever since despite the fact that no law has ever been put in place. But this time, as before, the group was denied entry at the stadium.

Sara arrived late to find out that 35 people had been arrested and taken to the Vozara detention centre, often used to hold women for ‘morality crimes’. They included friends of hers as well as a different group of women who had been caught trying to sneak in dressed as men.

“We were terrified,” said Marzieh, a young Persepolis fan who was among those arrested that day and who spoke with me after her release. All 35 women were put in the same room but they were allowed to keep their phones. A selfie one of them took went viral on Telegram, the most popular social media platform in Iran. They all exchanged numbers and tips about what to do at the next protest as well as how to more accurately act like a man to avoid detection. “They [the arrested women] were laughing all the time and talking about how to get in the next time. In front of the guards!” recalled Marzieh. “What should they wear? What should they do? How should they walk to look like men?”

Meanwhile, Sara had contacted two female Iranian MPs to help press for their release. “The Islamic Republic is not a whole package of bad people,” Sara explained. “If you are living in this country, you have to find some ways into the system.” That system is complex – split between political, religious and military power bases that often overlap and conflict. At the start of 2018 Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced that it was to lift its ban on women going to sports events, leaving Iran as the last major country to stop its female citizens from attending games. “In Saudi,” Sara explained, “one person decides. Here we have so many people. So many ayatollahs. There is a president and cabinet. And the supreme leader.” She believed that Infantino’s visit was a wasted opportunity. The Fifa president made no comment on the ban or the arrests while in Iran. Later he would claim that he had brought up the issue in private, although he didn’t say with whom. “His words go into thin air,” said Sara. “Nothing happens.”

The risks for Sara were huge but, after almost 12 years, she was determined to keep fighting for what she believes is right. And the World Cup in Russia was coming up. She hoped she could get a visa, go to Russia and, for the first time in her life, buy a ticket and enter a stadium to watch Iran play without the threat of arrest. But she could not be sure if she would be allowed to leave the country. Would she be stopped at the border and denied permission to leave? Would her identity be uncovered?

I asked her whether she was hopeful that things would change.

“Am I hopeful?” She took a few seconds to think about it. “If I didn’t have any hope I wouldn’t continue this work.”

Sara approaches Saint Petersburg Stadium ahead of Iran’s World Cup match against Morocco on 15th June 2018

15th June 2018, Saint Petersburg

It takes a few moments to realise that Sara is standing in front of me in the hotel restaurant in Saint Petersburg where we had agreed to meet. Without the baggy clothes and headscarf she’s almost unrecognisable as the woman I’d met a few months earlier. After months of worrying, she had, indeed, been allowed out of the country, her identity still secret. And now here she was, clutching an envelope containing something she had always wished for but had never been allowed to have. “I keep coming back and checking, checking, checking,” she says, holding a ticket for Iran’s first match of the World Cup, against Morocco. “It is like a treasure to me,” she says, holding it carefully with two hands. “It is so beautiful.”

The long walk from the hotel to the stadium is soundtracked by songs and chants. Thousands of Iranian women join the procession, some from Tehran, others from the global diaspora. Another Iranian activist, who is based in the US, Neda, joins us on the walk to the stadium. “It is their right to be in the stadiums,” Sara says. “Football is not for men only.” Outside the stadium the two women unfurl a banner they have brought with them: “SUPPORT IRANIAN WOMEN TO ATTEND STADIUMS #NoBan4Women”.

Russian police look on but don’t intervene. Despite a ban on political protest at the World Cup, Fifa had given Sara permission to bring her banner.

“It never happened,” she says of her many previous attempts in Iran to see a match in person. “Now football is going from two dimensions to three dimensions.” She hasn’t stopped smiling for hours. For the first time, she will not be turned away at the ground – she will be able to watch the game. “Wish me luck,” she says as she walks past security, turns around, waves, and disappears into the stand.

Inside over 60,000 supporters pack the stadium. The game looks like it is drifting towards a draw until, in the 95th minute, Morocco’s Aziz Bouhaddouz diverts a swerving cross past his own goalkeeper. The entire Iranian bench invades the pitch to celebrate its first World Cup win in 20 years. The players make three laps of honour as Iran’s fans seem reluctant to leave and bring an end to this rare moment.

“This ticket is like a treasure to me…Football is going from two dimensions to three dimensions”

After the game, Iran’s fans pour in to the concourses and celebrate wildly. Sara fights through the crowds to meet me. She looks dazed. “I don’t know how to celebrate,” she says, trying to explain the feeling of watching her first World Cup match, and one that finished in such spectacular style. “I was shocked.” But the shock doesn’t last long. She has a taste for it now. I thought of the moment, 12 years ago, when I had seen my first protest in Tehran, and the poster that had been hung outside the stadium.

“The Most Powerful Person Is That Who Can Keep Their Hunger.”

Sara had indeed kept her hunger alive, and now she wants more. “It was something I had never experienced before,” she says before returning to the party. “I need to go to more games!”

20th June 2018, Tehran

On 20th June 2018 women watched a football match at the Azadi Stadium for the first time since 1981. A screen inside the stadium showed the Iran-Spain game – and women could attend. Iran lost 1-0, but it was still a day of celebration for Marzieh, the young activist arrested for trying to attend the Tehran derby in March. She sent me a picture of herself at the match with a one word message: “Yeeeees!” The stadium was open to women one further time for the Iran-Portugal game, but since then women have once again been barred from attending matches. The work of Sara and her fellow activists continues.

Names have been changed to protect the women’s identities.

Iranian women pose as they watch the World Cup match between Iran and Portugal
on a giant screen at Azadi Stadium in Tehran on 26th June 2018

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