This week, Sepp Blatter, the chief of FIFA, the international governing body for football, appealed to Iran to end its longstanding stadium ban for women. Since the 1980s, Iran, like Saudi Arabia, has barred women and girls from attending men’s football matches as spectators. Because Iran suffered no adverse consequences for this blatant discrimination, the world should not have been surprised when the country extended the ban to other sporting events, including volleyball matches.
Last June, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a dual Iranian-British law student, paid a high price for this international silence. Iranian authorities arrested Ghavami after she participated in a peaceful protest against the ban on women attending men’s volleyball matches. Subsequently, a court convicted her on the charge of “propaganda against the state,” imposing a one-year prison term and a two-year ban on travel abroad. She is now out on bail, awaiting the results of her appeal.
Iran isn’t alone in applying such discrimination. Saudi Arabia not only places severe restrictions on women and girls seeking to participate in sports, but also bans them from attending public sporting events as spectators to prevent gender mixing. Last December, the newspaper Saudi Gazette reported that authorities arrested a Saudi woman for attending a football match in Jeddah while apparently disguised as a man.
In February, 190 Iranian human rights activists, including Nobel Peace Laureate Shirin Ebadi, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and Mohammad Maleki, wrote an open letter to FIFA’s Blatter, asking him to sanction Iran for refusing “to allow Iranian women into stadiums to watch football matches.” Several months earlier, Human Rights Watch had written to Blatter to ask him to address this discrimination by both the Iranian Football Federation and the Iranian government.
Blatter is doing the right thing by speaking out now, ahead of the FIFA leadership election on May 29, but much more needs to be done to hold Iran and Saudi Arabia to account for flouting the rules.
Now that Blatter has found his voice, it will be interesting to see what action, if any, FIFA will take if the Iranian and Saudi authorities persist in banning women from attending football matches as spectators. Is FIFA prepared to sanction Iran and Saudi Arabia for lowering the standards in sport? Will Iran still be allowed to host international football matches and competitions like the 2019 Asian Cup, for which it is reportedly bidding? These are just a few of the questions that FIFA needs to address.
When women and girls are denied the fundamental right to exercise, watch, or compete, we all lose out. It’s time to give meaning to the Olympic Charter’s pledge that “sport is a human right,” and level the playing field for women and girls.