The Iranian Football Federation has asked the parliament to adopt a law allowing female spectators in stadiums, which was forbidden until now, said its secretary-general Hassan Kamrani Far. "A draft law was sent by the Iranian Football Federation to the Islamic National Assembly. Once approved, the presence of women will be authorized," he said.

The Iranian parliament has a large ultra-conservative majority and religious dignitaries have so far opposed women's attendance at sports venues. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian women were denied access to stadiums, officially to protect them from the ill-mannered ways of men.

FIFA has been pushing for years for Iran to open stadiums to women, but until 2019 Tehran only rarely authorized the presence of a limited number of female spectators (at most a thousand female fans in November 2018) and for certain matches.

In October 2019, they were exceptionally able to attend the men's national team's match against Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in the capital, a qualifier for the World Cup-2022. In early October, the women were hoping to return to the stands in Tehran for the World Cup-2022 qualifier against South Korea, but the match was eventually played behind closed doors without explanation from the federation.

Football in Iran, an indicator of social and cultural tensions

Over the last forty years, the Iranian national team's borderline journey seems to reflect the country's political development, after having oscillated between integration into the world order and rejection of international norms. During the 1970s Iran asserted itself as the great regional power of Western states; its football team won the Asian Nations Cup three times and participated for the first time in the 1978 World Cup. During the fifteen years following the Islamic revolution of 1979, marked by the long war against Iraq, tension and rejection of the international order policy dominated the political and sporting scene.

Then, under the two mandates (1997-2005) of the reformist President Khatami, an opening to the world took shape, an opening in line with the aspirations of civil society: Iran participated in various international competitions and qualified twice for the Football World Cup: in 1998 and 2006. Several foreign coaches (the Brazilian Vieira, the Croatians Ivic, Blazevic, Ivanovic) are hired to coach, with varying success, the national team; several players (Da'i, Bagheri, Azizi, Karimi, Mahdavikia, Hashmian...) are recruited by European clubs, in the prestigious Bundesliga. Moreover, Iranian players manage to transfer their services to the United Arab Emirates or Singapore and are thus internationally recognized.

In 2005, the election to the presidency of the Republic of the populist and radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated a policy of rejection of this opening, which is translated by a greater governmental control on the sports federations. In this regard, in October 2005, the Football Federation requires players to respect "Islamic values", not to wear tight-fitting clothes, earrings or necklaces, and to take care of the appearance of their hair: patchy beards, ponytails, long, curly hair, anything reminiscent of the Western look is forbidden. But something even more significant: after the disappointing campaign of the national football team in the World Cup in Germany (defeats against Mexico and Portugal, draw with Angola), the president of the federation is removed from his functions by the government.

This measure, symbolizing the loyalty of sport to political power (the brother of the President of the Republic played an active role in this forced resignation), provoked protests from FIFA, which temporarily suspended the Iranian Football Federation in November 2006 until a solution was found following the statutes of the international federation in December 2006.

Between tradition and modernity

However, beyond these vicissitudes, the enthusiasm of Iranians for football is an excellent indicator of the contradictions that overwhelm today's society, the tensions between tradition and modernity, the debates on the role of women in the public sphere, on decency, and the tolerable overflow of emotions.

The increasingly massive diffusion of football, the exponential growth of the sports press reporting the competitions here and there, reflect a profound change in the symbolic references of Iranian society. Iran's national sport is wrestling which is linked to the habitual practice of zurkhâne (literally: the powerhouse) in which they participate in a context of friendly sociability, through various athletic exercises. The image of the wrestler is twofold: he is both that of the "big arm" (of the "big neck", they say in Persian) of the traditional popular media; he is also that of pahlavân, the athlete, the hero of chivalry (the javânmard), amateur, dedicated and selfless.

The image of the football player, on the contrary, is that of the modern and future champion (ghahremân), who dreams of playing for Manchester or AC Milan. The two images are not necessarily antagonistic (many older Iranians claim this dual devotion), but they are necessarily concurrent and the latter is undoubtedly progressively eclipsing the former. The predominance of the footballer over the wrestler certainly symbolizes recent events in Iran. The image of this new hero also competes with the central figure in the Iranian world, which is that of the martyr, enhanced by the still close memory of the 400,000 dead of the war against Iraq.

Limitations and prohibitions against women

In a country where the authorities are obsessed with the concealment of the female body and the sexual division of spaces, sports practices and performances are key issues. The disciplines in which women can engage in full view of men are: shooting, horse riding, canoeing, mountaineering, skiing, taekwondo... and competitions for the disabled; these are all practices which, unlike athletics, swimming, etc., conform, for better or worse, to Islamic dress codes.

The practice of women's football - a sport synonymous with international openness, which particularly attracts young urban women - is also the subject of controversy and it was only recently, in 2003, that a women's national team was created, made up of the best players from the previously existing national futsal team. When they play, the players are completely covered, even during the summer heat. They must wear a scarf that prevents their hair from showing, long pants that are tightly attached to their socks, and a tunic that covers the body down to the lower thighs.

The problem with the regulation uniform is serious when the team has to participate in a competition outside the country's borders and which can be attended by mixed audiences. In 2007, the team was due to travel to Berlin for a match with a team that had come to play in Tehran. In extremis, this trip was suspended by the authorities due to an alleged "technical problem".

The players' uniform, which makes it mandatory to wear the hejâb, has been at the center of a recent controversy with FIFA, which banned Iranian players under the age of 15 from participating in the YOG (Youth Olympic Games) held in Singapore in August 2010. An article of the international federation's regulations states, in effect, that "the basic required attire (of the player) may not include any sign equivalent to a political, religious or personal affirmation". A compromise was reached between the presidents of FIFA and the Iranian federation. "The players, the statement specifies, may wear the head covering over their hair, but it must not go down over the ears or cover the nape of the neck. "FIFA has dropped its pants," the feminists commented.

While the practice of women's football is subject to strict conditions, the presence of women in stadiums where men's competitions take place is forbidden, even though the matches are widely broadcast on television. The challenge to this ban has become a leitmotiv of women's demands and at every important match, women try to enter the stadium. The starting point of this conflictive claim took place on the occasion of the return of the national team after winning in Australia the qualification for the 1998 World Cup: several thousand women (mainly young women) invaded the Tehran stadium, where the heroes were acclaimed, while the media called on the "dear sisters" to stay at home to attend the event on television, which did not broadcast any image of these rebels. "Are we not part of this nation? We also want to be part of the festivities; we are not cockroaches," said these unruly women.

The problem of women's access to the stadiums was also a recurring one during most international matches, especially those attended by foreign women. Thus, in November 2001, during the Iran-Ireland match, a qualifier for the 2002 World Cup, Irish women were admitted to the stadium, after multiple back-and-forths and contradictory decisions by the authorities, while Iranian women were once again banned from the stadium. In January 2003 it was announced that, under pressure from reformists, the ban would be lifted and that specific stands would be reserved for women, but the conservative stance prevailed and the female fans were forced to turn back near the box office.

In autumn 2004, 11 of them tried to attend the Iran-Germany friendly match but were turned away at the same time as German women were allowed into the stadium. "How are we different from them?" protested the rebels. The situation seemed to improve during the pre-election context of spring 2005: a small group of women was admitted to attend the decisive rematch on the way to the World Cup that meant Iran's victory over Japan on March 25; in April some fifteen women from the Federation (players, referees, coaches) were allowed to enter the Ispahan stadium to watch the match of a local team against the Syrian team. But on the occasion of the qualifying match against North Korea in June 2005, it seemed that a decisive step was being taken.

A significant number of female football players were allowed to attend the match under heavy police control; they were placed, it is true, between two rows of Korean supporters to avoid any mixing with the Iranians. During the election campaign, Rafsanjani, the "liberal" candidate who wanted to appear close to young people and women, was in favor of lifting the ban, but his opponent, the conservative and populist Ahmadinejad who won and was elected president, took the opposite view. The nearly 150 women who tried, on March 1, 2006, to attend a friendly match against Costa Rica, waving a banner bearing the words "We want to support the national team", were vigorously repressed. Several initiatives were taken to lift this ban, such as the project to reserve special stands for women. This idea was even taken up by Ahmadinejad (opportunistically?) in April 2006.

But there was an immediate affirmation of principle. Grand Ayatollah Lankarani issued a fatvâ recalling the appropriateness of this ban and the conservative wing unanimously disavowed this project. "Just as it is a sin for men to see naked women, it is also not good from an Islamic point of view for women to see men's bare legs," declared in 2006 a member of Parliament opposed to any modification, as was the Guardian Council, responsible for ensuring compliance with the measures provided for in the Islamic Law. The presence of women in stadiums has thus become a major political issue, which has even inspired filmmakers. In Offside, which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2006 but is banned in Iran, Jafar Panahi, who was recently sentenced to six years in prison and a 20-year ban on travel to and from Iran, tells the story of a young woman who disguises herself as a boy to enter the Azadi stadium (the large 100,000-seat stadium west of Tehran).

The obsession with discipline

The prejudice in the stadiums and the desire to protect women are part not only of the obsession for discipline, for moral order, for prudish decorum, but also the suspicion of public gatherings and outbursts of freedom of expression. Stadiums, which have been the scene of the largest number of repressed demonstrations in the last twenty years, are closely guarded. Aware of the risks that weigh on the gathering of an anonymous crowd, the authorities have reorganized the counter-offensive.

During the 1990s, large stadiums were adorned with posters and inscriptions denouncing the U.S. and calling for the destruction of Israel. Nowadays, at least since the major games, I attended in 2006-2008, a cheerleader calls on the spectators to chant: "Death to America", to imbibe the behavior of a martyr (whose bust is displayed on the sidelines) and to participate in the opening prayer of the game.

But these calls are not followed by fans who support their team much more than the government. This context of police intervention does not prevent demonstrations of opposition to the regime. Thus, on July 27, 2010, during the match between Persepolis, one of Tehran's big teams, and Traktosazi Tabriz (the Tabriz tractor factory), a violent riot broke out in the capital's largest stadium. The regime presented this as a "clash of supporters of the two clubs, dishonoring the sport and the players", but, around 35,000 fans supporting both clubs, united to confront the bassidjis (volunteer militia) and the police for three hours, using everything they had at hand.

But it is not only opposition to the regime that generates surveillance and repression. Joyful demonstrations in the streets following victories also appear as threats to decency, which requires, in public spaces, a somber look. Honking the horn at full volume, dancing in the street, are considered intolerable transgressions to the imposed norms. Conservative authorities are constantly offended by the vulgarity of the spectators, as elsewhere they consider the stadium as one of the few places where bad words can be said (fohsh). There is indeed a singular contrast between the fans' slogans (e.g. Shir-e samâvar dar kun-e dâvar: "The samovar's shin in the referee's ass") and the inscriptions on the edges of the stands pointing out that prayer is the key to paradise and that we must be inspired in the stadiums by the example of Ali (the first imam of the Shiites) and his family.

In this sense and others, a stadium is a place of fear for the authorities so meticulously related to their puritanical ethics. A single word provokes consensus in this country of social, political, ethnic contrasts, so strongly marked: "Iran", the "beloved homeland", the object of a chauvinistic fervor and an exacerbated nationalism that the tim-e melli (national team) must honor. One cannot understand Iran and its football if one does not take into account this exacerbated nationalism, this national pride, rooted in the collective consciousness of a multi-millennial history, a pride that unites all Iranians, regardless of their political ideology, and whether they live in Iran or exile.

In conclusion, the passion for football is part of a process of modernization of Iranian society where values such as individualism, competition, social-climbing by its merit, and spectacularity are gradually making their way. In the stands as on the field, a game is played between the tensions of traditional models and the aspirations of world standards.

Sources: Efdeportes