Yeganeh Rezaian is an Iranian journalist living in the United States.
Like so many people around the world, I am excitedly preparing for this year’s World Cup. But as an Iranian woman now living in America, I know this year will be different. It will be first time in my life that I’ll be able to enjoy the games freely, in public, wearing whatever I want with whomever I please. I’m going to celebrate this small victory by throwing a party at a bar. I will celebrate even if Iran loses.
I started watching soccer with my dad as a 5-year-old in Tehran. My first introduction to the World Cup was in 1994, when I was 10. The 15th FIFA World Cup was held in the United States.
Ironically, Iran’s state TV broadcast all the games live, even though they were being played on the “enemy’s” soil, in the heart of the “Great Satan.” It was exhilarating, but Iran’s national soccer team, known as Team Melli in Persian, wasn’t participating in the tournament that year. Back then, the state broadcaster didn’t have the sophisticated technology it uses now to censor hijab-less women among the fans. Soccer was the way we were able to enjoy a glimpse into America.
Perhaps you’re wondering why my dad didn’t just take my older sister and I to the stadium to watch a game in Tehran. But that’s not something we were ever allowed to do. Early in its rule, the Islamic republic banned women from attending men’s sports events, especially soccer, the most popular sport in the country. The punishment for defying the ban is arrest, imprisonment or fines.
Like so many of my fellow countrywomen, I grew up dreaming about going to stadiums to watch national matches, but instead had to settle with watching them at home. As a teenager, I even contemplated going to the stadium disguised as a boy.
I never executed my plan, but this act of hidden defiance has become more of a trend in recent years. I now know that many women of my generation quietly considered doing it. We are so proud of the girls today who are willing to openly take the risks that we wouldn’t, but they shouldn’t have to face any consequences for such a natural act. Enjoying sports as a woman should not be a crime.
In 1998, the first World Cup of my teenage years was held in France. The United States and Iran played a historic match, which was shown live in several public locations on big screens. This was the closest Iranian women ever experienced watching the game next to their men in public. Iran won 2-1. The thrilling victory brought a huge number of Iranian fans to the streets to celebrate, including many women. These people-driven victory celebrations have been tolerated periodically, depending on the political needs and sense of confidence of the regime at the moment.
But the last time I was in Iran for the World Cup matches, during the summer of 2014, the police announced prior to the games that people would not be allowed to celebrate any win by Iran’s team. All plans that had been made to show the games in public parks and cultural centers were canceled by Tehran’s police. I decided to go to a coffee shop in the northern part of the capital to watch the game with a group of my friends. The owner of the cafe chose to risk his business license by defying the ban for the chance of a big night of profits, opening his cafe to mostly young women thirsty to watch the game in a public setting.
A group of 30 people, including my friends and me, arrived a few minutes before Iran’s game started. The first half went well as we watched, laughed drank tea and smoked hookah. But 20 minutes into the second half, the owner had to turn the lights off, mute the volume inside the cafe and lock the door. We nervously watched the rest of the game in the dark, unable to listen to the play-by-play, worried we might get into legal trouble for the simple act of publicly supporting our nation’s athletes.
For years, Iranian officials who claim to be concerned with social issues have promised to work toward lifting the ban on women in stadiums. But the fact that there hasn’t even been enough will to create separate sections for women is further evidence of the misogyny that is still so pervasive in Iranian society.
Attending men’s soccer games is not the only athletic activity that women are officially banned from. In addition to being banned from attending all other male sporting competitions, women are not even allowed to ride bicycles in public.
In 2026 when the U.S. hosts a World Cup again, if our team makes it into the tournament, Iranian American women will go to the stadiums to cheer on our soccer team, to show the world— and especially Iran’s leaders, who will undoubtedly be watching on their beloved state tv— that sports fandom is for everyone.
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