KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —– Human Rights Watch has called on FIFA to do more for women football fans in Iran who want to watch matches live in the stadia.

The pressure group has described the authorities’ plan to restrict the number of women who can attend Thursday’s World Cup qualifier against Cambodia in Tehran as “discriminatory, deceptive and dangerous.”

It has also laid at the world federation’s door a responsibility for the safety of Iranian female fans who put themselves at risk by challenging the discriminatory limits on ticket sales and stadium access.

Minky Worden . . . taking a lead for Human Rights Watch

HRW is not alone among observers who believe that the initial issuance of 3,500 tickets to women fans is a mere gesture, designed to ease pressure from human rights groups and the world football federation. This is the first time in n 40 years since women have been enabled legally to buy tickets, albeit through a website whose sales portal was not advertised.

On September 22, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said he had been assured by the Iranians that women would be allowed into the Azadi stadium on October 10, which was FIFA’s deadline by which “women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran for all football matches.”

Arrest risk

However, Iranian authorities have capped the number of women who can attend at 4,600 out of a stadium capacity of 100,000 seats.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said: “Iran’s ban on half the population attending football matches has led to women and girls risking arrest, jail, and even their lives to challenge it.

“Any concessions by FIFA to limit the number of women who can attend stadiums only empowers Iran’s hardliners who have previously pre-selected women to attend while keeping the discriminatory restrictions in place.”

HRW claimed that the 5pc quota on seats for women contravened FIFA’s statutes and human rights policy. Article 4 of FIFA statutes insists that discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion” of the national association.

Such a step would be fraught with diplomatic and political problems for Infantino and his FIFA advisers but, without teeth, the governing body’s strictures on human rights will be derided as mere words and thus to be flouted by anybody and everybody.

For many years Iranian women and girls wanting to attend matches have defied the ban, imposed after the Islamic revolution, by disguising themselves as men. The ban has led to arrests, beatings, jailings, detention, and abuses.

In September, a female football fan, Sahar Khodayari, dubbed “Blue Girl” for the colors of her favorite team, Esteghlal, died after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse when she feared being jailed for six months after attending a match at Azadi stadium disguised as a man.

Criminal record

A campaigner from the OpenStadiums pressure group said: “We could be facing years of prison. If they send you to jail, you have a criminal record – even though it’s a criminal record for wanting to go to a football game. But the criminal record follows you everywhere for the rest of your life. When you apply for jobs, you won’t get one, and so on.”

Maryam Shojaei, who has long campaigned to end the stadium ban in Iran and is the sister of Iran’s football team captain, said: “If they [Iranian authorities] propose different quotas of tickets, different gates to go in to and different sections to sit in, they are treating women differently from men.

“This is discrimination. When authorities have women all in one section, it causes big problems. It puts all the pressure on women to prove that the process to enable them to attend stadiums is OK.”

Women’s rights advocates from OpenStadiums and #NoBanForWomen have written to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation for years with evidence of the country’s discrimination to demand that the federations uphold their own rules.

Infantino role

In March 2018, Infantino attended a match in Iran’s Azadi stadium, during which 35 women were arrested for trying to enter the stadium to see the tournament. While attending a November 2018 match at the stadium, he praised the Iranian government for the presence of women as “a real breakthrough,” though only a select group of women were allowed to attend.

Following these events and further detention of female stadium activists in June, Infantino set Mehdi Taj, the head of the Iranian football federation, a July 15 deadline about “concrete steps” by the government to lift its ban so women could attend 2022 World Cup qualifiers.

Worden said: “For many years, Iran’s football federation and government officials have flouted FIFA’s rules on nondiscrimination through intimidation, arrests, and outright deception.

“FIFA should be gravely concerned for the safety of Iranian female fans who put themselves at risk by challenging the discriminatory limits on ticket sales and stadium access.”