The Equalizer: Moving the needle in Iran

Maryam Shojaei grew up proud of her brother. A standout on every soccer team he ever played for, Masoud Shojaei is a point of pride for a family steeped in soccer culture. In 2004, when Masoud made his debut for the Iranian national team, his father watched on in the Azadi stadium in Tehran. Iran is historically the best Asian football team, consistently winning the AFC Asia Cup and qualifying for the illustrious World Cup.

But Maryam never went to those games. As a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the strict enforcement of Shariah law, women are forbidden to attend soccer matches. 

That is, until earlier this month. 

Iran’s stadium policies came under intense scrutiny in September when Sahar Khodayari, or the “Blue Girl,” committed suicide. Sahar was an Iranian soccer fan who disguised herself with a wig and attempted to enter a soccer stadium in March. She wore blue for her favorite soccer team, Esteghlal Tehran.

She was promptly arrested upon entering the stadium. After she returned to her court date six months later this September, she learned she could receive a prison sentence of between six months and two years. Given the reported conditions of Iran’s prisons for women, she poured gasoline on her body and lit herself on fire. Days later, on Sept. 10, she passed away in the hospital.

Under pressure from FIFA President Gianni Infantino and women’s rights activists, Iranian authorities earmarked tickets for women to go to a soccer game for the first time in 40 years. Authorities only gave 5% of the stadium’s capacity in tickets to women; nevertheless, women streamed into Azadi stadium for a World Cup qualifier.

Women were given a “women’s only section.” It hardly mattered: it was a step in the right direction. Though Iran beat opponent Cambodia 14–0, emotion was high in the stands.

Videos show women weeping, waving their national flags. One woman with an Iranian flag on each cheek that later went viral on Twitter said, “[This] was really a very big wish. Really, thank you for letting us come. I’m shaking. Thank you.” 

Though soccer twitter was enthralled and the match queued coverage from some of the most-read publications in the world such as The New York Times, Maryam was cautious to call this progress. 

“[Authorities] think that, if they give up on this, it’s a noose for them,” she said in an interview with The Guardian. “People will ask for more. If they give in in one area, they fear they will have to give in in others.”

On Monday, Sahar’s favorite team, Esteghlal, played Saipa in front of a crowd of thousands of passionate soccer fans. In accordance with the law, none of them were women.


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