Photo: Vahid Salemi (AP)

Yesterday, Iran put together a cheap little PR stunt in order to pretend the government cares about its wildly retrograde prohibition against women attending live soccer matches by allowing a handpicked selection of ladies to enter Azadi Stadium to watch a friendly match between Iran and Bolivia. However, Iranian officials couldn’t even keep up the charade long enough for the ink to dry on the Western media’s starry-eyed articles celebrating the ruse before someone stepped in and said some dumb shit to reaffirm the country’s staunch commitment to gender segregation.

Iran’s government has forbidden women from attending most sporting events for nearly four decades now. It’s become pretty common for women to attempt to purchase tickets and enter the stadiums to watch soccer matches—some even going disguised as men—only to be turned away or even arrested. FIFA president Gianni Infantino was in Iran for the Tehran Derby in March—a match before which some women who had tried to get into the stadium were arrested. After he was criticized for tacitly supporting the segregation with his presence, he offered these wishy-washy comments on the topic:

“I was promised [by Iranian president Hassan Rouhani] that women in Iran will have access to football stadiums soon,” he said during an event at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. “He told me that in countries such as (Iran), these things take a bit of time.”

[...]

“I heard there were some incidents where some women were detained because they wanted to attend a football match and there was some criticism, obviously and rightly,” he said.

“There are two ways to deal with this matter - either we criticize, we sanction, we condemn, we don’t speak and we cut relations. Or we go there and have a discussion and try to convince the leaders of the country that they should give (women) access to stadiums. I went for the second option.”

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This is the context in which yesterday’s stunt emerged. Iran’s soccer authorities selected a group of about 100 women and girls, many of them soccer players themselves, to attend the “open” match between Iran and Bolivia. The women were shunted off into a section by themselves, and surrounded by security guards to protect them from god knows what (though errant shots and passes are indeed a menace at soccer games). The rest of the female public was denied entry to the event. A game was watched, flags were waved, pictures were taken, articles were written, and it seemed like the ploy to gain some good domestic and international publicity thanks to the illusion of progress worked perfectly.

Cynical as the motivation behind the move may have been, having women inside an Iranian soccer stadium is a powerful symbol of change. There does seem to be an understanding amongst more progressive-minded Iranians that the status quo is dumb. Former president and current cutesy Twitter propagandist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lifted the prohibition in 2006, only to see it quickly reinstated by Iran’s religious clerics. Current president Rouhani has himself criticized the prohibition, but hasn’t yet been able to end it. Yesterday’s partial lifting of the ban, plus the decision to allow women to watch Iran’s World Cup matches this past summer inside Azadi Stadium, does seem to portend that some kind of progress is in the works.

But it didn’t take long for the government to expose yesterday’s news as a gimmick. BBC Persian reports that shortly after kickoff of yesterday’s match, a soccer federation spokesman, Gholam-Hossein Zamanabadi, said the group planned a similar move for next week’s AFC Champions League match between Tehran club Persepolis and Qatari team Al Saad. The next day, Zamanabadi was interviewed by the state-owned Mehr News Agency, and he reiterated the plan to have a select group of women attend the Persepolis-Al Saad match. Less than an hour after the interview was published, Mehr deleted it.

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Shortly after Zamanabadi’s interview first went up, Mehr published a statement from Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri. In the statement, Montazeri made clear his opposition to women’s presence in soccer stadiums, said that if something like that happens again he will instruct the local prosecutor to press charges on those responsible, and explained why exactly he was against letting women watch live soccer matches in ... vivid fashion. From France 24 (emphasis added):

“I object to the presence of women in Azadi Stadium yesterday. We are a Muslim state, we are Muslims,” Montazeri said, according to the conservative Mehr news agency.

“We will deal with any official who wants to allow women inside stadiums under any pretext,” he added.

“When a woman goes to a stadium and is faced with half-naked men in sports clothes and sees them it will lead to sin.”

“If this is repeated I will order the Tehran prosecutor to act,” he said.

We will admit that Iranian national teamer Ramin Rezaeian’s granite-sculpted facial features and impeccable mane of hair make him alluring enough to drive plenty of red-blooded people of all genders and sexualities metaphorically crazy with lust. However, we have enough faith in the women of Iran to believe they could compose themselves before his and his compatriots’ good looks and not, like, storm the pitch, fling their arms around the players’ broad shoulders, and shower their faces in wet smooches and tears of passion.

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This is the real state of gender politics in Iran, a place where officially letting a few women attend a soccer match is sold as a revolutionary act aimed at placating the citizens and looking good in the foreign press and maybe signifying an inching forward of progress, right until the real leaders swoop in and reassert the backwards logic of the existing policies. In light of all his recent tweeting about the progressive possibilities of politics in American sports, this current Iranian situation would seem to be right up Ahmadinejad’s alley. Though we can’t say we’re especially surprised that he has yet to weigh in.

[France 24 | BBC Persian]