TEHRAN – Iranian women have watched the country’s national football team play after authorities allowed them to buy tickets for the first time in decades, celebrating their long-awaited access to the national stadium but also paying tribute to the “Blue Girl” fan who died last month.
Iran, one of the traditional powerhouses of Asian football with a passionate fanbase, won their World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia on Thursday 14-0 but the one-sided game will be remembered much more for the scenes in the stands.
Waving flags, blowing vuvuzela plastic horns and displaying the team colours of red, green and white, over 3,000 women watched from a special women-only section in Tehran’s Azadi Stadium.
Women have been banned from watching men’s games in Iran since shortly after the 1979 Islamic revolution with only a few exceptions made for small groups on rare occasions.
But under pressure from world football’s governing body FIFA and women’s rights campaigners, Iranian authorities earmarked tickets for them to watch Thursday’s game.
FIFA had sent a delegation to Tehran to ensure that women were allowed to attend the game following the death last month of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire to protest against her arrest for trying to get into a match.
Dubbed “Blue Girl” online for her favourite team Esteghlal’s colours, Khodayari had feared being jailed for six months by the Islamic Revolutionary Court for trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.
Video footage of the crowd at Thursday’s match, posted on twitter, showed some supporters chanting “Blue Girl, Blue Girl”. Other video showed supporters chanting “FIFA, Thank You”.
“We have an incredible feeling as the first Iranian women entering the stadium,” said one fan, interviewed by local television.
Another video interview, distributed on social media, showed a woman fan inside the stadium, on the brink of tears with an Iranian flag over her shoulders and painted on her face.
“It was really a very big wish. Really, thank you for letting us come. I’m shaking. Thank you,” she said.
Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi reporting from the stadium in Tehran said that there are around 3,500-4,000 women who have been admitted inside, but it is a small number considering the stadium has a capacity of 80,000.
He added that a crowd of women had gathered outside of the stadium still trying to enter.
“We spoke to one woman who said that she’s going to try to get in even if she has to stay there until the end of the day,” Basravi said.
“Another woman we spoke to said that she doesn’t even like football, but getting into the same games as the men are allowed to attend is an equal rights issue, it’s a women’s rights issue.”
The game was sparsely attended but an extra area, next to the designated women’s section, was opened for what appeared to be women who did not have tickets for the arranged area.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said he viewed the presence of women at the stadium as a positive step, according to the official IRNA news agency.
“The government has said to us that as far as they’re concerned, this is the forward trend,” Basravi said.
“The number of women attending stadium games will only go up but there is a proviso – they will only do so in so far as authorities are able to maintain Islamic values, maintain public order laws that are in line with Islamic codes of conduct.”
While campaigners have welcomed the access granted for Thursday’s game, it is unclear if such scenes will become the norm in Iran.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has urged Iranian authorities to open up stadiums to women for all games, not just World Cup qualifiers.
The sport’s global governing body sent officials to Tehran to monitor access for women at the match and said it will continue to press for their inclusion.
“FIFA’s stance on the access of women to the stadiums in Iran has been firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran. For all football matches,” FIFA had said in a statement.
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