ARYANA KHALILZADEH WRITES – The major headline out of Iran the past week was not about the ongoing nuclear talks, but the continued struggle of Iranian women fighting for gender equality. The final match of the World Cup qualification between Iran and Lebanon was held in the holy city of Mashhad this past week, and authorities prevented women who had already purchased tickets for the game from entering the stadium. This is in violation of Iran’s 2019 promise to FIFA to allow a limited number of women to attend games.

Videos on social media show what appear to be women gathered in front of the stadium in Mashhad peacefully chanting in protest, being pepper sprayed and forcefully dispersed.

The 2019 FIFA directive to admit women came after a female fan, in fear of being jailed for attending the games, set herself on fire in protest outside of a court. Still, since then, the Iranian government has been using various tactics to restrict the attendance of women and to admit just a select group of hand-picked women invitees – families of government officials or the players.

What is the Iranian position? Influential clerics argue that women need to be protected from the vulgar masculine atmosphere and the sight of partially clothed men. This has sparked outrage both inside and outside of Iran. Now, perhaps as a face-saving measure, President Raisi has intervened and ordered the interior ministry to investigate the matter and prepare a comprehensive report.

For now, the government claims that a number of fans wanted to enter the stadium without a ticket and says that only nine women had tickets to the game, which was for the men’s section of the stadium, and which, of course, is off limits to women, so they will be compensated for their unused tickets. It certainly seems that this was another false claim by hardliners intent on barring women from entering the stadium-while they are admitted into stadiums for political events.

What does the Iranian soccer federation say? “I don’t think anything would have happened if women had come to the stadium, and this could promote our culture,” Iran’s team captain said in his interview.

Although such discrimination is neither law nor regulation, there have been numerous arrests, beatings, and detentions of women who have tried to attend. Now, there are growing calls for FIFA to sanction Iran and even to throw its team out of the World Cup competition. State television, IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), reported that the President of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, rejected the circulating rumors on Iran’s disqualification and made it clear in his meeting with the acting president of Iran’s Soccer Federation that the country will not be banned from World Cup games.

It is important for the international community, including FIFA, to stand against these discriminatory practices of the current Iranian regime. Through a statement, the Human Rights Watch group called on FIFA to take action by arguing that “FIFA needs to follow its own global guidelines on non-discrimination and should consider enforcing penalties for Iran’s noncompliance.” The time has come for FIFA to stop criticizing and start acting, and to ban Iran from international competitions unless it ends its gender discrimination policies as well as removes the cages in the stadiums that separate women from  men.

Words alone are not enough. One FIFA spokesperson is quoted as saying, “FIFA has heard with concerns reports that women were not allowed at the match in Mashhad yesterday and is asking the Iranian Football Federation for more information on this matter.” Ironically, FIFA’s slogan saying, “Why do we love football? Because we are all the same” is rarely invoked with regard to the oppression of women in countries such as Iran.

It is time for a change. Iranian women deserve their rights. It is important to remember that, except for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Iran is the only FIFA member banning women from entering stadiums- for over 40 years now.

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