The Glass Turnstyle
When you think about the hassle of attending a live sporting event, your mind probably leaps to visions of being stuck in hellish traffic near the stadium or trying to corral your family onto the correct public transit line. For most of us, a mix of infrastructure and procrastination keeps us from the game. In Iran, there can be much larger obstacles for attendance.
It can be easy to overlook Iran, but the Islamic Republic of over 80 million people is a passionate sporting nation. They are a perennial contender in international wrestling (when they don’t forfeit for political reasons) and are seemingly always on the cusp of breaking onto the world stage in international soccer. Fans have shown up in droves to watch Iran’s greatest athletes play for decades, but just who was allowed to watch has shifted greatly since 1979.
This was the year of the Iranian Revolution, a coup against the secular, though dictatorial, rule of Mohammed Reza Shaw and the implementation of Islamic rule of law. This was also the year the Iranian Hostage Crisis began. Protesters stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran taking more the 50 Americans hostage. It was a year that permanently changed the lives of generations of Iranians, bringing wholesale changes to how daily life was lived by millions. Women were targets in the cultural overhaul.
Types of dress that were provocative to hardliners were banned as headscarves and featureless garments like chadors were introduced. Women’s access to jobs and education were curtailed, as jobs in the fields of science and technology were deemed “male”. Even travel could be forbidden if not okayed by a woman’s husband or guardian. And in a world where a woman wasn’t allowed to pursue a mathematics degree, the prospects of being involved with sports, in any capacity, became nil.
The especially insidious aspect of this shrinking of freedom was that much of it happened not through lawmaking, but rather social coercion and threats. The “powers that be” which led the nation through the first decades post-revolution relied on the power of threats; threats of violence or financial ruin to anyone and their loved ones if they stepped out of the newly drawn lines. The great thing about people though, is that they don’t really like lines. Almost as soon as these draconian measures were put into practice, people started to push back often in almost invisible ways. Headscarves started to slowly loosen to show more hair as the years passed. A handful of women are now in parliament. More women than men are now enrolled in Iran’s universities. But the sporting world has been slower to progress.
Women may now participate in some sports (with men’s permission) but their bodies must be completely covered by clothing. Women’s events are not regularly shown on television in Iran. When they are, they are quickly followed by outcries from conservative clerics. Even
the simple act of watching men play has been a struggle for Iranian women. Since 1979,
women have essentially been banned from attending sporting events. Sure, women could buy tickets, but they would be turned away at the gates. After almost 40 years of banishment, there was a small shift in the stance of the Iranian government. Starting in 2015, women could watch certain events, like volleyball, but had to be segregated from the men attending. This was laughably labeled as progress, but “progress” wasn’t moving fast enough for many women who just wanted to experience the simple joy of live sports.
Women started banding together to attempt to enter soccer matches shortly after. They would be turned away or arrested and released shortly after the game. These women garnered some international attention when 35 were held while trying to attend a men’s soccer match in Tehran, a game which the head FIFA, Gianni Infantino, was in attendance. These women were determined to succeed but had been stymied at every turn. So, they got creative. Really creative.
Several women decided that if they would not be allowed into soccer stadiums as women, then maybe they would get in as men. Wearing men’s clothing which helped hid some of their curves, donning wigs & even applying fake facial hair, these women strode up to the home of their favorite team, Persepolis. Accompanied by a few male allies, they hustled through the gates as a group. Security didn’t even bat an eye.
After they reached their seats, it became clear to many of the people around them that women had made their way into the match. This revelation didn’t appear to phase anybody, at least during the game. In an interview with Iranian reporter Khabar Varzeshi, one of the women said, “[People] came over and took selfies with us, praising us for going. Another interesting thing is all of those who knew we were women did not shout anything rude throughout the match”
When pressed about going to future games, the women said they planned to sneak into more games until it finally becomes socially acceptable for women to attend men’s matches.
The push for more social acceptance at sporting events has made its way to the very top of the government. President Hassan Rohani has called for the decades' long cultural ban on women attending sporting events to be lifted. Rohani went on to point out the double standard of allowing women to be active players of sports but to not allow them to participate in their live viewing.
"There should be no difference between men and women in Islam, and for that reason, women should also be allowed to take part in sports events," said Rohani, “Is preventing women from attending sports arenas as spectators in favor of Islam?"
Change is only made in fits and starts, but it appears that after nearly 40 years, the day will actually arrive in Iran where anyone who loves sport can enjoy the simple pleasure of watching their favorite team in person.