The Tehran derby: a fight for equality

Esteghlal supporters hold balloons as they cheer on their team during the derby football match between Esteghlal and Persepolis at the Azadi stadium in Tehran on February 12, 2017. The country’s two biggest clubs, both based in the Iranian capital, played to a crowd of 76,000 at the Azadi Stadium leaving the Persopolis fans defeated after Esteghlal won the match 3-2. / AFP / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
by Samindra Kunti, AIPS Media
ZURICH, March 2, 2018 – In Persian ‘Azadi’ signifies freedom. On Thursday, tens of thousands of football fans and FIFA president Gianni Infantino packed the Azadi Stadium for the Tehran derby Esteqlal and Persepolis, arguably the biggest domestic fixture in Irani football. Outside the west entrance of the bowl-shaped venue female fans were detained and transported to the Vosara detention center.

BAN – Since 1979 and the Iranian Revolution women have been banned from attending football games in Iran. Diehard female Iranian fans have often defied local laws and sneaked into games dressed as men, always risking detention and social stigma. On Thursday, they had an extra reason to attend the game with FIFA supremo Infantino watching the match as a guest of honour, alongside Iranian Sports Minister Masour Soltanifar. The FIFA president was in Iran on a two-day visit to take part in a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Iran’s football federation.

 – Local authorities detained multiple women who tried to attend the capital derby. Media reports suggested different numbers of arrest. According to the semi-official ISNA news agency, Iranian interior ministry spokesman Seyyed Salman Samani said the female football fans were not arrested, but transferred to a ‘proper place’ by police.

AND INFANTINO – The FIFA president addressed the ban in talks with the Iranian Football Federation, Soltanifar and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, according to local newspaper Shahrvand, but the sensitivity of the issue was glaring. During a live TV broadcast an interview with Soltanifar, in the presence of Infantino, was faded and taken off the air when a journalist asked when the ban would be ended and women would be allowed to attend matches.

OPEN STADIUMS – In the age of social media, Twitter played its role. In the lead-up to the big derby there had been plenty of calls on social media for women to protest against the ban outside the Azadi stadium. OpenStadiums – a movement of Iranian women campaigning to end the ban – wrote an open letter to Infantino calling on him to use his power and influence to end the ban.The movement argued that the gender discrimination at the gates was a ‘clear violation’ of the statues of both the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA. Article 4 of FIFA’s statutes prohibits discrimination of any kind.

LETTER – Part of the letter read: “It is time that the AFC and FIFA take a stand against those who actively and openly discriminate against female football fans in violation of statues, regulations, and human rights. On behalf of all Iranian women that love football and merely want to attend matches to support their teams of choice, we urge you to take the necessary disciplinary action against the Iranian Federation to protect our rights.”

SCANT REFERENCE TO WOMEN’S FOOTBALL – Infantino addressed the Iranian authorities and local legends during an official function on Thursday, but he made limited, if little, reference to the women’s game. The FIFA president spoke of the 23,000 registered Iranian female football players in the country and said ‘and we have some representatives here, and they look fantastic.’

“And of course, for a big country like Iran, much more can be done,” said Infantino. “So, my plea to all of you men and women is, let’s develop and encourage women’s football. Because we need to care about 50% of our population. And let me congratulate the Iran Football Association, and the whole of Iran, for their brilliant successes in men’ football.”

 – Back on home turf, during the the 4th Conference for Equality and Inclusion, Infantino showed his combativeness and elaborated on the issue in a more upbeat tone. The different message and inflexion were striking. “I went yesterday to Tehran and I went to the President of Iran and I asked him: ‘Please, to consider to give access to woman in the stadium,’ explained Infantino. “He promised me that this will be made.”

“Yesterday I saw in Teheran and I know that there have been some incidents, with some woman who where detained because they wanted to attend a football match,” said the FIFA President. “There was some criticism and rightfully.”

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE – He highlighted the delicate political nature of gender equality in Iran’s stadiums. “At 10 o’clock in the morning there were 1000,000 people in the stadium for a game in the afternoon,” said Infantino. “Men and women were in the streets of Tehran. There is passion for football, but there are a laws in this country and today the laws prohibit women from attending football matches. We have to talk about this. It’s not easy. Let’s face the problem, so there are laws in this country that prohibit women from attending matches. There are two ways to deal with this. Either we criticise, we sanction or condemn, we don’t speak or we try and go there and have discussion and try to convince leaders of the country. Women’s football in Iran is a big reality. There are 23,000 women registered.”

“I hope and I am confident,” concluded the FIFA president. “We will see. I was promised that woman in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon.”