KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Iranian authorities appear to have taken a cautious step forward in response to years of campaigning by allowing an estimated 800 women football fans into the Azadi (Freedom) Stadium in Tehran for the second leg of the Asian Champions League Final.

Gianni Infantino, president of world federation FIFA, was present after negative comment had marked his presence in March at the derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis when women fans were barred and some arrested as they sought to enter the ground.

This time reports from Reuters and semi-official news agency Tasnim said between 500 and 800 women had been permitted into a specifically organised ‘family sector’ of the ground to watch Persepolis suffer a second 2-0 defeat to Kashima Antlers of Japan and thus lose 4-0 on aggregate.

Campaigners Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei. and Gigi Alford bringing the petition to FIFA

Most were believed to be relatives of players or members of Iran’s female football and futsal teams and football federation employees.

Women and girls have not been allowed to attend men’s sports events in Iran for most of the 39 years since the Islamic revolution. Access had been denied to top club football matches since 1981 though some foreign women supporters had been tolerated.

Small step . . .

The domestic prohibition was eased last month when about 100 women were allowed to watch Iran’s friendly international against Bolivia. Women supporters were notable for their presence at Iran’s matches at the summer’s World Cup finals but that was in Russia while some were allowed to watch a live transmission of a match to the Azadi Stadium.

A controlled level of access now in Tehran came days after a 200,000-signature petition was handed over to FIFA secretary-general Fatma Samoura in Zurich by campaigners Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei and Gigi Alford on behalf of the #OpenStadiums and #NoBan4Women pressure groups.

Samoura responded with a pledge that FIFA would work with the Asian Football Confederation and Iran to end the long-running ban on women attending matches but without mentioning a timeline.

She said via Twitter: “Held v. constructive talks this morning with advocates for #NoBan4Women. We will keep engaging with them, as well as public & (FIFA) authorities in (Iran) to work towards stadium access for all.”

Shojaei said: “I am so optimistic that they take steps to allow all women into the stadiums. This meeting shows that our request has been heard – now it’s FIFA’s turn to follow its principles and ask Iran to lift this ban.”

Another campaigner told Reuters: “It has been our dream for decades. We are always excluded from public happiness and excitement. We have protested and fought for it. Basically, it’s women’s first demand.”

Blatter role

FIFA first confronted the issue in November 2013 during a visit to Tehran by the then president Sepp Blatter.

He had told Iranian President Hassan Rohani that FIFA was sensitive to developing football among women in the developing and Muslim countries. At a subsequent press conference later he used a question about the international introduction of the headscarf to press further the case for women spectators.

Blatter said: “I have had the opportunity here to [suggest] they should try to change one of the cultural rules here so that women can attend football matches, and I repeated this with the Speaker of the Parliament. You have developed so much women’s football here, that it should say that women also can go to the stadium.

“We cannot intervene to change the laws, but as the president of FIFA, and a defender of women’s football in the world, and a defender of women’s football in Islamic countries, I had to present this plea to the political authorities.”

Blatter was accompanied and supported by Australian Moya Dodd, then a member of the executive committees of both FIFA and the AFC.

Dodd’s wait

She had accepted that “local laws must be respected” but looked forward to the day “when  we could,  together, attend a top football match in Iran.”

Thus Dodd has been among campaigners closely followed events this week in Tehran.

The AFC had predicted that an event record crowd of 78,116 would watch the match which confederation president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa described as among “new benchmarks in engagement in the continent.”

Dodd, focusing on whether that ‘benchmark’ meant access for women fans, said: “Let’s see if there are any deadlines and consequences . . .”