Banned from stadiums at home, Iranian women attend World Cup soccer matches in Russia

“It was amazing, It was like the Truman Show -- when you enter the TV."

So it was an unusual experience for her when she entered Saint Petersburg’s Krestovsky stadium last Friday to watch Iran’s national team win against Morocco in its opening World Cup game. She is among a group of Iranian women who have traveled to this year’s World Cup bringing with them a campaign demanding that women be allowed into soccer stadiums at home.

“It was amazing,” she said of entering the St. Petersburg stadium, when she met an ABC reporter in Moscow this week. "It was like the Truman Show -- when you enter the TV. When two dimensions become three dimensions."

But the excitement of attending was, she said, tinged with sadness by the knowledge that so many of her friends at home could not go. “Imagine how such a simple thing is your dream. It is sad,” she said.

On Wednesday, the women’s World Cup visit though coincided with a breakthrough in the campaign to lift the stadium ban — for the first time since it was imposed, women were let into a Tehran stadium to watch a soccer game alongside men, after a local city council agreed to allow women to attend a screening of Iran’s match against Spain. The mixed screening reportedly almost didn’t go ahead, after authorities tried to halt it last minute, citing “infrastructure problems,” the Washington Post reported. But hundreds of female fans arrived in any case to demand entry to the Azadi stadium and organizers eventually relented, allowing women in to watch the game, which Iran lost 1-0 to Spain.

The event was hailed by some Iranian observers as a notable step forward in the effort to end the stadium ban. Iranian women have been excluded from soccer games since 1981, as the country’s new religious government applied a hardline interpretation of Islamic customs, declaring stadiums inappropriate places for women.

In fact, there is no law against women attending games, but authorities have imposed a de facto ban, with women instead turned away and sometimes arrested. As a result, women wishing to enter have resorted sometimes even to disguising themselves as men. In May, half a dozen young women became heroes among Iran’s secular community after they successfully sneaked into a game of Tehran’s Persepolis club by wearing elaborate fake beards. Foreign women are allowed to attend games, which is how Sara found herself hiding among a group of Koreans during her first stadium game in Iran.

Sara — a pseudonym for the activist who fears punishment for her or her family in Iran — has been running a group called Open Stadiums and campaigning against the ban for 13 years. At the World Cup game in St. Petersburg another activist, Maryam Qashqaei, held up a banner inside the stadium protesting the ban. The demonstration attracted attention internationally as the first time Iranian women have made such a protest at a World Cup.

On Tuesday though, even as they celebrated the mixed screening in Iran, the activists ran into resistance in the Russian city, Kazan, where the Iran-Spain game was being hosted. Qashqaei said she was detained by security at the stadium and had her banner confiscated from her. Sara was also stopped and body searched for 15 minutes, she told ABC News.

Qashqaei was stopped even though she said she had received authorisation for the banner from FIFA, the World Cup’s organiser.

Anton Lisin, a spokesman for Russia’s World Cup Local Organising Committee, told Reuters he was aware of an incident involving Qashqaei but had no further details. FIFA could not be immediately reached for comment.

It was an abrupt shift in the women’s reception in Russia. In St. Petersburg, Qashqaei’s banner was held up for the full 90 minutes of the game. Outside the stadium, Iranians had cheered on the activists and some had carried their own signs. Among them a husband and wife — seen by the AP — held a placard asking why they had to travel 2,564 miles “to be at the stadium as a family.”

The activists have focused on FIFA recently, trying to push the body into pressuring Iran by linking the issue to the country’s participation in FIFA competitions. The organization has said it wants Iran to lift the ban. In 2017, FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino told reporters that Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani had “promised that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon.”

In Iran, however, authorities have met challenges to the ban with arrests, treating attendance as a political demonstration. When Infantino attended the Tehran game last year, 35 women were detained outside the stadium. Supporters of lifting the ban say they believe the government fears that lifting the ban will fuel demands for change on other restrictions, around requirements on headscarves for instance, which have seen prominent protests recently.

Before traveling to the World Cup, Sara said she had feared she would be arrested in Iran and stopped from going. She said she worried still that she could be detained when she returns to Iran.

"It is really sad that for such a simple thing you have to be worried," she said.

Before she was stopped in Kazan, Sara had also criticised FIFA's efforts as largely words without actions. But on Wednesday she said she hoped the mixed screening at the Tehran stadium would mean a big step toward ending the ban.

Infantino has defended FIFA's efforts by arguing engagement with Iran's authorities on the issue is more productive than simply threatening punishment.

Lifting the ban has acquired support among some parts of the Iranian ruling class. Former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2006 issued a decree lifting the interdiction on female fans.

But weeks later, the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, restored the prohibition.

But in the years since support for ending it has built in Iran. When Iran qualified for the World Cup last July, its team captain Masoud Shojaei used a meeting with Rouhani to ask the Iranian president to let women into stadiums. On Wednesday, the Iranian team’s official Twitter account posted a photo of a female fan in the stands at the mixed screening in Tehran. “Azadi stadium now!” the Tweet read.