To say that these concessions were granted reluctantly by Iran’s misogynistic rulers would be an extreme understatement. But a prolonged and principled commitment by activists inside Iran and their supporters in the international community of human rights advocacy to extend women’s liberties is paying off.
There are few international organizations that fully embrace the Islamic Republic of Iran as a member. One is the United Nations, and although Iran is still seen as an outlaw nation in some respects, Tehran has sometimes managed to use its U.N. membership to its advantage. For example, Iranian officials attending meetings at the United Nations use every opportunity to spread their agenda through the international media, enjoying the freedom of expression they deny to their own subjects.
But one organization that seems to have backed Iran into a corner, forcing Tehran to make a concession that until last week seemed unthinkable, is FIFA, which oversees international soccer, the world’s most beloved sport.
FIFA is a massive entity that wields enormous economic and political clout around the world. Yes, there’s plenty to criticize about the group, which has earned plenty of public scorn for evidence of corruption and hypocrisy on human rights. Yet its recent proclamations may have done more than anything else to crack Iran’s 40 years of gender apartheid.
After a FIFA delegation visited Tehran last month, the organization issued a statement on the substance of meetings held with Iranian officials that concluded with a very direct message to the country’s leadership. “FIFA’s position is firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran. For all football matches,” it said.
And sure enough, last week tickets for women went on sale for Iran’s Oct. 10 match against Cambodia. A small allotment was made available online, and the tickets sold out within minutes. So far, fans have reportedly purchased at least 3,500 tickets for the women’s sections of the stadium.
This small step in the right direction is the result of international pressure. Not the “maximum pressure” of the Trump administration’s effort to economically choke Iran into submission, but the sustained pressure of civil society, human rights organizations and their long-term lobbying of FIFA to act. All of these groups demanded that Tehran stop ignoring the issue.
The recent concessions by the regime are a big deal. They show that dissent inside Iran is possible and that it can sometimes bear fruit. But these achievements come at a steep cost.
Last month, Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old Iranian soccer fan, set herself on fire to protest her arrest and prosecution. She had attended a soccer game disguised as a man and was charged with appearing in public without a hijab. She ultimately died from her injuries.
Her death brought international attention to the absurdity of the soccer ban, perhaps forcing the authorities to alter their policies. Yet the encouraging news about the regime’s concessions on women’s rights came along with revelations about arrests and long prison sentences for some of the people involved in driving the change.
Masih Alinejad, an activist who has lived in exile in the United States for the past decade, is one of the most effective campaigners for ending the compulsory hijab for women — the most visible sign of Iran’s gender segregation — through the #WhiteWednesdays and #MyStealthyFreedom social media campaigns that encourage women in Iran to share images and videos of themselves without the mandatory head covering.
Her brother, Ali, was arrested in Tehran late last month, in an apparent bid to silence her. “The arrest of my brother is a continuation of the attempt to instill fear in Iranian public and silence me,” Alinejad told me. “This is a systematic attack.” She also noted that six women’s rights activists have recently been sentenced to a total of 109 years for posting videos relating to the campaigns.
The Iranian authorities have similarly targeted relatives of employees of the BBC’s Persian-language television service.
Activists are concerned that support for the Iranian people could end up being forgotten in President Trump’s quest to negotiate a settlement with Iran. “I fear the Trump administration will cut a deal with Tehran that ignores human rights, emboldening the clerical regime to crack down on its domestic opposition without concern for international pressure,” Masih Alinejad, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on Sunday.
Change is possible, but it almost always requires organized activism. Efforts to extend and protect human rights require sustained contact between Iranian civil society and its supporters abroad. Under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and his travel ban, that most directly targets Iranians, those points of contact with Iranian activists have become severely limited.
The United States should be doing everything in its power to encourage and support Iranians in their quest for equal rights and a freer society. Until now, though, we’ve just been getting in the way.