At a Soccer Match, Women Kick Iran's Ban to the Curb

Soccer fans wave Iranian flags at Azadi Stadium in Tehran during a match against Bahrain. Many fans also brought posters supporting candidates in Iran's June 17 elections.
Soccer fans wave Iranian flags at Azadi Stadium in Tehran during a match against Bahrain. Many fans also brought posters supporting candidates in Iran's June 17 elections. (By Hasan Sarbakhshian -- Associated Press)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 9, 2005

TEHRAN, June 8 -- One of the victories scored at Azadi Stadium on Wednesday evening was Iran's soccer triumph over the island nation of Bahrain, an easy 1-0 win that guaranteed Iran a slot in next year's World Cup tournament and set off dancing in the streets of the capital.

Another sort of victory came about 90 minutes before the game, when a crowd of female soccer fans pushed their way past guards outside the stadium. Defying a rule that has banned women from soccer matches for more than a quarter-century in the Islamic republic, the young activists demanded seats in the sports complex that Iran's religious rulers named Azadi, or "freedom."

"We were just insisting on our rights," said Laila Maleki, one of the group of 26 young women. "We're part of no campaign."

Iranians will go to the polls on June 17 to elect a new president, and the impending electoral contest brought campaign posters, paper visors and thousands of fliers to the sporting contest, continuing a long link here between soccer and public affairs.

Iran's ruling clerics were dumbfounded by the spontaneous street celebrations across the country when the national team qualified for the 1998 World Cup, and women joined men in rejoicing to banned Western music blaring from car stereos. The party was even bigger -- and more officially welcome -- when Iran upset the United States during the tournament itself.

But the ban on women in the stands remained fixed, although it has been informally lifted in a way that offers a window into how politics has come to work here.

Of the 100 or so women in the Special Grandstand on Wednesday night, most were invited by Iran's minister for sports, Mohsen Mehralizadeh, who is also one of the country's vice presidents. An advocate of equal participation for women as well as a presidential candidate, Mehralizadeh has in recent months arranged for women to attend national soccer games.

His approach has been gradualist, reflecting the pace of change brought about by President Mohammad Khatami, a reformer first elected in 1997 in a system in which appointed clerics hold decisive power.

"Women were allowed to come first in tens, then in hundreds," said Fatemeh Abolghasemi, who watched the match with the other women -- several of whom cheered themselves hoarse -- gathered in four segregated rows on the lower deck. "We Iranian women will get what we want," she said, handing out a campaign flier for Mehralizadeh.

"Women, like men, need entertainment," she added. "They need to express their joy. This is a good message to the next president."

But the gradual approach was not for everyone. As the sponsored group of women cruised into the sports complex in a minibus, the group of 26 women gathered at the gate, demanding entry as well. In the crush, one woman broke her leg, witnesses said.

Her comrades persevered and pushed past the stanchions. Once inside the stadium, they were given seats on orders of Khatami, who watched the game from the section labeled V-VIP, right next to the four rows of women in black.

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