Access For All - Interview with "Open Stadiums" From Iran
The beauty of sports is that it quintessentially crosses all global boundaries and none more so than football which is beloved across the world by all segments of society. In stadiums, in all major capitals, people from all backgrounds, cultures and creeds can for the most part sit together in stadiums and enjoy the beautiful game with all it nuances.
One country where at least half the population cannot attend a game is Iran where women are still banned from stadiums and unable to cheer on their beloved 'Team Melli.' This form of gender segregation began with the 1979 revolution and has persisted ever since. The laws from that era segregated the sexes across segments of society most notably in major sports events; this left many women on the outside looking in and as the Iranian national team has grown in stature, respect and competitiveness, Iranian women have literally been left on the side lines as spectators, much to their frustration.
This sporting ban was extended to volleyball in 2012 and came to a head recently when Iranian women were again barred from a recent 2016 Volleyball World League Tournament in Tehran despite protestations. The Asian Cup held recently in Australia showed the potential possibilities of what can be achieved in terms of fan support as the huge Iranian community in Australia came out in force to support their countrymen and many in the crowd were Iranian female supporters.
A representative of the Iranian based group, 'Open Stadiums', a movement of Iranian women seeking to end discrimination and let women attend stadiums, recently voiced their opinions in a recent interview.
Soccerphile: Why are Iranian women banned from stadiums in Iran?
Open Stadiums: After the Islamic revolution in 1979, some bans were applied towards female social activities. The mandatory 'Hijab' was the most important thing and following that was gender segregation, so one of the places deemed not suitable for women was men's matches.
Also in the early years after the revolution, any form of the feeling of "happiness" like people used to have before the revolution was sort of condemned, so events like concerts, stadium events and comic movies were restricted. Then the war with Iraq came around and national grief was more common so all these forms of entertainment were considered disrespectful.
Soccerphile: Does the overseas Iranian Diaspora support and assist the work that you do?
Open Stadiums: We were around nine persons that started this campaign back in 2005. After the 2009 crackdown, some of our members left the country due to threats and they became 'Stadium Campaign' supporters from the outside. The way they supported us was by consulting us about some sport events strategies in helping us spread letters to authorities.
In recent years, we found some other supporters (some human rights / women rights groups) and also some Iranian women (who live abroad) who are interested in sport and want equal rights for men and women in sport. Although, we also have had some problems, the 'Open Stadium' Campaign now is like a national demand with many people talking about it.
Even recently Iran's vice president, between all the discrimination against women in Iran, has mentioned women's demands to enter stadiums. We are under the radar so we are really careful with what we are doing but sometimes people outside Iran mix this women's rights issue with their own political / opposition messages and because this campaign has good coverage in stadiums, they have brought the ex-flag of Iran or the Mujahedin's flag to the stadium with banners with slogans written on them: "Open stadiums for Iranian women".
This is a huge problem, because from one side, we really appreciate that they have spent time and money and traveled to those sport events to help Iranian women, but on the other hand we are afraid that the Iranian authorities will arrest us and accuse us of working with the opposition which is a huge deal and could lead to a long term prison sentence.
Soccerphile: The last Asian Cup was in Australia and Iran had huge crowds including thousands of female Iranian fans. Did seeing all this make you happy?
Open Stadiums: I had mixed feelings as one of our friends was there in Australia to show that in Iran women can't enter the stadium and she sent me some live footage.
I wished I had been there and could watch it myself (we tried to find financial support for this trip but it didn't happen and it was an expensive trip so I couldn't afford it myself) but on the other hand, it was a statement that Iranian women and men can watch a football game without any problem. I wish the AFC and FIFA would place more attention on this form of discrimination and place pressure on Iran to open up football stadiums and show that the Asian Cup in Australia was a good example.
Soccerphile: Do men in Iran also support your cause?
Open Stadiums: Firstly, it was not like this as even feminists were not really interested in this campaign. We tried so hard to make this campaign from just a football fans' campaign to a women's / human rights campaign so men in this process learnt that this was an important demand. Recently, especially after the volleyball ban, men are more supportive because all the excuses that they say about a woman's presence in football stadiums not being a good place for women because of bad language, etc, it didn't apply to volleyball! So at least in social media, they show their support and they don't mock us like at the beginning of this campaign.
Soccerphile: How can global football fans help and assist?
Open Stadiums: They can help a lot! For example, recently several football stars came to Iran, we contacted them and asked if they can they add to their contract that they won't play with Iran's team without female spectators but just one of them (Massimo Oddo) tweeted back that; 'This is absurd.'
On the other hand as you may know foreign women can enter to our stadium when their team has a match with Iran! We asked them (during the Iran versus South Korea match) that they say something or show some notes or signs. In any important matches with huge television coverage, just a banner can spread our message widely and can place pressure on international organizations to pay more attention to women's rights in sport.
Soccerphile: Do you think you ever see change in the future?
Open Stadiums: I never get disappointed because when I see our achievements I see maybe we didn't open the stadium's door but we changed society's behavior toward this form of discrimination which is really important. Also one thing that I always think is important; people and organizations have to show their concerns when some equality in sport is jeopardized because after a while, just making people and organizations sensitive about this discrimination is going to be really tough.
Since in Iran everything depends on who is the President, it would be good while this semi-moderate President is in office, people put more pressure because this cabinet cares a little but if someone like the previous president becomes president again, we will face a lot more problems like the second term of Ahmadinejad that basically placed all our activities on hold.