Nancy Gillen

Powerful images of jubilant women adorned with the colours of the Iranian flag have been shared widely across the internet in the past 48 hours.

The photos feature the 4,600 women that managed to buy tickets for Iran’s FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. 

The hosts thrashed their opponents 14-0, but the match was significant due to what happened in the stands rather than on the pitch. It marked a break in the 40-year-ban on Iranian women entering football stadiums, put in place during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

There were powerful images of another variety, however. How about the one of a man constructing a high metal fence around the section allocated to women? Or perhaps those showing the swathe of empty seats in the stadium after only a further 10,000 tickets were purchased by men? The 15,823 fans in attendance had been swallowed up by the 78,000-capacity venue.

The limited amount of tickets available, lack of accreditation for female journalists and prison-like nature of the women’s enclosure seemed like necessary evils for such a ground-breaking moment.

Indeed, in allowing women to watch the match, Iran has taken a step forward. Yet it is the tiniest of steps, wary and fragile, and one that could so easily be reversed.

There are no plans to allow women into future fixtures. When, or maybe it is better to say if, such matches are decided upon, will the number of tickets still be limited to women? Will they still have to sit in a special section, away from the male spectators?

There also seems to be a focus on international football, of which there are merely a handful of games a year. What about the Persian Gulf Pro League, which features 16 teams from across the country and comprises 48 matches a season?  

More worrying, however, is the subsequent backlash that this concession to the women of Iran could cause. The ban is a reflection of hardline attitudes in Iran, which may not be among the majority, but are certainly among the powerful.

Around 4,600 women were allowed to watch the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran, marking a break in a 40-year-ban ©Getty Images
Around 4,600 women were allowed to watch the FIFA 2022 World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia in Tehran, marking a break in a 40-year-ban ©Getty Images

It is not the first time that there has been a relaxation of the rules. One hundred women were allowed to watch the men's national team friendly against Bolivia last October, while 500 women attended the AFC Champions League final match in Tehran between Persepolis and Japan's Kashima Antlers the following month.

Despite the apparent progress made, reprisals followed these games. The country's chief prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri described the attendance of women at the friendly against Bolivia as "sinful", while several women were arrested in June at the Azadi Stadium, having put on fake beards and wigs to attend Iran's friendly against Syria.

The situation then took the most tragic of twists last month following the suicide of an Iranian female football fan.

Twenty-nine-year old Sahar Khodayari had been arrested in March after she disguised herself as a man and tried to sneak into a match between Iranian team Esteghlal and Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates at the Azadi Stadium.

She was released pending a court case, but upon returning to Ershad Courthouse to collect her phone on September 2, Khodayari learned that she could be tried by a revolutionary court and put in prison for six months. In despair, she set herself on fire, dying from her injuries a week later.

With news of the incident leaking out of Iran, there was an uproar around the world. FIFA, in particular, were subject to criticism, rightly called out for their complete lack of action in ensuring that Iranian women could watch football freely and safely.

You would hope then, following FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s slightly self-congratulatory statement, that the governing body remembers the price that was paid to get to this point and the risks that still remain.

"This is a very positive step forward, and one which FIFA, and especially Iranian girls and women, have been eagerly waiting for," he said after Iran’s match with Cambodia.

"The passion, joy and enthusiasm they showed today was remarkable to see and encourages us even more to continue the path we have started. History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey.

"Consequently, 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. There can be no stopping or turning back now.

"I would like to thank both the Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI), the Asian Football Confederation and the authorities involved for their efforts and cooperation.

"FIFA will continue to work closely with them, to help ensure that the right thing is done, which is to allow all fans, irrespective of gender, to have the chance to go to the stadiums and enjoy a game of football.

"Since I arrived at FIFA, we fight to see this objective fulfilled."

"But, above all, today I want to say a very big thank you and record our utmost respect to all the Iranian girls and women who courageously stood and are standing up for their rights.

"FIFA fully supports them and will stand by them.”

Of course, Infantino is talking the talk, but it is yet to be seen whether FIFA continue to push for progress. 

Amnesty International have described the recent relaxation of the ban as a "cynical publicity stunt", and it indeed has the potential to become just that. The FFIRI could view FIFA as appeased and sink back into normality. Arrests are still possible, and the backlash could be strong. 

FIFA cannot take their foot off the gas, then. The governing body must continue to pile pressure on the FFIRI until Iranian women can watch any match they like, with no limitations and in complete safety.