Amid criticism from international sporting organizations, Iran announced over the weekend that it would move to end a longstanding ban on women’s attendance at sporting events within the country, according to state-owned media reports. Women will now be allowed to attend most sporting events, the New York Times reported, though they will likely still not be allowed to sit with men outside of designated family sections.
“Stadiums must become family-oriented, and the atmosphere there must be softened,” Abdolhamid Ahmad, Iran’s deputy sports minister, told the state news agency.
The policy shift comes under president Hassan Rouhani, who announced support for more gender equality in sports and broader society upon taking office in 2013 and that year allowed Shirin Gerami to become the first Iranian woman to compete in international triathlon’s world championship. It would be a reversal from previous policies that have banned women from soccer matches and other sporting events since the Iranian revolution in 1979.
The ban, like a similar one in Saudi Arabia (which has also banned women and girls from participating in some sports), has gotten more attention in recent years as Iranian women and activists have protested both inside the country and out, demonstrating outside stadiums and displaying banners during international sporting events in countries like Italy, Poland, and Sweden (Iranian women have also protested other forms of gender inequality inside the country). Those protests and direct appeals to FIFA, soccer’s governing body, drew the ire of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who in March urged the country to rescind the ban.
“This cannot continue,” Blatter wrote. “Hence, my appeal to the Iranian authorities; open the nation’s football stadiums to women.”
Still, the ban persisted around soccer, and Iran prevented movie theaters, restaurants, and cafes from screening matches during the World Cup last summer in an effort to keep men and women from watching together. And though women had at times been allowed to attend other sporting events, including volleyball, the issue erupted again in July when dozens of women were arrested while trying to enter a World Volleyball League match in Tehran. Women journalists were also prevented from entering the stadium.
After activist Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested for trying to attend a volleyball match last summer, FIVB, the sport’s international federation, stripped the country of an international tournament and said it would “not give Iran the right to host any future FIVB directly controlled events such as World Championships…until the ban on women attending volleyball matches is lifted.”
Iranian officials did not specify which sports the new policy would apply to, though it seems some will still be off-limits for women fans.
“The new government has supported the ban to be lifted but we want to make sure there will be a guarantee women will be allowed to attend all sporting events in future,” Ghavami, the activist, told The Guardian upon hearing the announcement.
And though it is unclear whether the policy will allow women to attend soccer matches, Blatter welcomed the news with cautious optimism. “Hearing encouraging reports from Iran on women’s access to sport venues,” the FIFA president tweeted. “Hoping to see women at football stadiums there soon.”