Supporters of Iran watch the Morocco vs Iran match in a fan zone in Moscow, Russia, on June 15, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters
(New York) – The Iranian government should release women detained because they are alleged to have dressed as men to circumvent a ban on women attending football matches, Human Rights Watch said today. Among the women reportedly detained on August 13, 2019 are Zahra Khoshnavaz, a prominent advocate for ending the ban on women and girls attending public sporting events, and Forough Alaei, a leading photojournalist.

Iran bans female spectators from football and other stadiums. The ban is not written into law or regulation, but is enforced by the country’s authorities. The ban is a clear violation of the rules in FIFA’s constitution, the Statutes, and its Human Rights Policy. Article 4 of the Statutes says discrimination against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” In June, the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino warned the Iranian Federation that it must take concrete steps to allow women in stadiums or else face sanctions.

“Iranian women should not be spending a second in prison because authorities accuse them of peacefully attempting to defy a ridiculous ban that denies women and girls equal rights to attend a football match,” said Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should immediately and unconditionally release the women and lift the discriminatory ban on women attending sports matches.”

Women and girls who want to attend major football matches in Iran have long had to disguise themselves as men and boys to peacefully exercise that right and thwart the ban. Many have posted videos on social media to show their defiance of the ban.

Iran Wire, an online news outlet, reported on August 16 that the authorities in Iran had arrested six women, with two names unknown. The others include Leili Maleki and Hedieh Marvasti, who are both reportedly in Qarchak prison near Tehran.

The four women whose identities are confirmed are well-known advocates who have previously called for lifting the ban. Khoshnavaz’s advocacy to overturn the ban has been covered extensively in Iranian and global media, which have shown photographs of her in disguises she wore to enter the stadiums.

A source who was familiar with the arrests told Human Rights Watch that on August 13, the activists were called in for questioning at the Security Police office in Tehran, where they were held overnight. On August 14, authorities took the activists to the Vozara prosecutor’s office, where a judge issued a bond for them. However, they were not released, and later that day they were transferred to Qarchak prison. Activists have previously reported on the poor hygiene and safety conditions in Qarchak prison.

"Ignoring the wishes of a big part of society just because there could be some future problems and saying that the infrastructure is not ready, is very, very cruel and an injustice," Khoshnavaz told Euronews in an interview.

Alaei, the photojournalist, won first prize in World Press Photo 2019 for her work documenting the cruel exclusion of women from stadiums in Iran. Defense of media freedom is a central principle in FIFA’s Human Rights Policy.

For decades, Iranian women have put themselves in danger to document their exclusion from stadiums, which is a denial of women’s rights to be part of public spaces and the life of the country. Jafar Panahi’s award-winning 2006 film Offside depicts women and teenage girls arrested for trying to cheer for their teams.

Beyond the women challenging the ban by disguising themselves, women’s rights advocates from @OpenStadiums and #NoBanForWomen have written to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation for years with evidence of the country’s discrimination to demand that the federations uphold their own rules.

Infantino, the FIFA president, visited a match in Iran’s Azadi (Freedom) stadium in March 2018, during which 35 women were arrested for trying to attend. While attending a November 2018 match in the same stadium, he gave undue praise to the Iranian government for the presence of women as “a real breakthrough,” though only a select group of women were allowed to attend.

Following these events and further detention of activists in June 2019, Infantino wrote a letter to Mehdi Taj, the head of the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. FIFA’s public letter set a July 15 deadline for Taj to inform him of the “concrete steps” the Iranian government was intending to take to lift its ban so that women will be allowed to attend 2022 World Cup qualifiers. Infantino expressed disappointment in the letter that Iran has reneged on its commitments to open stadiums to women.

FIFA has reported that its pressure on Iran apparently resulted in steps for change. According to FIFA, in July the Iran Federation Executive Council decided to allow women in stadiums for World Cup qualifiers and began discussing how that would be carried out, such as for ticketing and seating, with Iran authorities for the October 10, 2019 men’s World Cup qualifying match.

“FIFA has clear rules that require members to allow women to attend matches and to protect press freedom, yet FIFA has not taken meaningful action to enforce its own regulations,” Worden said. “The latest detentions show that much stronger action than a verbal warning is needed from FIFA and that it needs to impose sanctions for such blatant, long-standing gender discrimination.”

Update: On August 17, authorities released Alaei, Khoshnavaz, Maleki  and Marvasti after their families each posted a 500,000,000 rial (usd 11,000) bond.  This reflects all the women arrested on August 14, which was a total of 4, not 6, as cited above.

On August 19, FIFA issued the following statement regarding the arrests:

"FIFA is aware of reports that several women involved in activism to end the stadium ban for Iranian women were arrested and later released. We are closely following this matter. Generally speaking, FIFA calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the ban."