As an 11-year-old girl growing up in Yazd, a religious city in central Iran, Fatemeh first fell in love with soccer while watching the Argentina team in her uncle’s living room at the France 1998 World Cup.
“Most of the matches took place late at night in Iran,” she told VICE Sports, speaking through WhatsApp (Fatemeh and all other Iranian women interviewed for this story requested that their full names were not used, due to fears of reprisal for openly criticising the Iranian regime). “We had just the one TV so we had to watch the games with the lights off and the volume down, not to disturb the adults.”
As she knelt in the dark next to her cousins, squinting at the tiny screen, she was entranced by their vivid blue and white shirts, their silky passing moves, and the matinee idol good looks of their star striker Gabriel Batistuta.
Peering into this strange and exotic world many thousands of miles away, the brief glimpses of the Argentinian female fans in the stands, some dancing in their t-shirts and shorts, contrasted sharply with the mostly hijab-clad women of her everyday life.
“Yazd has always had very strict Islamic beliefs,” she says. “Even nowadays, 20 years on, if a girl goes to the street wearing a colourful or short dress, most of the people will stare at her with anger.”
Once the World Cup drew to a close, Fatemeh began supporting Persepolis F.C., the family team, based in Tehran. Each year, her father and brothers would make the six-hour drive to the capital for the annual Azadi stadium derby with Esteghlal, F.C., a match so important that many businesses shut down on the day of the game. Later, as they returned with flushed faces and tales of the raucous chanting, the trumpets, and the frenzied hostilities between 100,000 fans always threatening to boil over into something more, she yearned more than ever to join them.
“I watched many of those matches at home alone,” she says. “In particular, I remember the day that Persepolis defeated Esteghlal to win the Persian Gulf Cup in 2001. It remains one of the sweetest and most bitter memories that I have.”
When Iran take on Morocco on Friday, Fatemeh will finally step into a soccer stadium for the first time, almost two decades to the day since she first watched Argentina all those years ago. Like many Iranian female fans travelling to Russia for the World Cup, she plans to take a printed banner into the stadium, alongside her miniature Iranian flags, with a message aimed at both FIFA and Iran’s government.
It simply reads, “I too, want a seat at Azadi.”
Iran’s ban on women entering soccer stadiums dates back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution when the Persian monarchy was overthrown and eventually replaced with an Islamic Republic. In the years following, the clergy gradually introduced progressively harsher restrictions on women in all areas of life, ultimately introducing a law which banned them from attending sporting matches involving men altogether.
For women like Fatemeh, born eight years after the revolution, the ban was just an unfortunate fact of life in a strict Islamic state.
“In Iran, the Islamic restrictions are non-negotiable for us,” she says. “In these extreme religious environments, girls are slowly forced to accept these discriminations, little by little, over time. It’s not like women were banned from everything overnight. It was a process and these things became part of our lives. When I was growing up, I think most girls didn’t even ask themselves why we weren’t able to go to stadiums with our fathers and brothers, because they already knew the answer. It was just a regret and nothing more.”
Soccer had always been part of Iranian culture since the end of the 19th century, but in the late 90s, Iran’s qualification for the 1998 World Cup, their first in twenty years, sent soccer fever sweeping through the country. Many girls, including Mahsa, then a 16-year-old growing up in Tehran, discovered the sport for the first time.
“Many girls first heard of soccer ahead of our qualifying playoff against Australia, which was a huge fixture across the country,” she told VICE Sports, through WhatsApp. “The match started at midday in Iran, but hardly anyone was at work or school that day. Schools sent warnings ordering students not to be absent, but instead whole families were gathered around their televisions, even though we were watching almost without hope. And then to win the game was unbelievable for us. People were celebrating all night in the streets.”
Iran may have exited in the group stages that year, but this new generation of female supporters remained captivated by the sport. Despite Iran’s failure to qualify for the 2002, 2006 or 2010 World Cups, many began fervently following European teams like Spain, England, or Germany instead. But growing up as a teenage female soccer fan in Iran came with many obstacles, and not just the government’s ban on attending matches.
"There was an expression I would hear a lot, ‘Of what importance is soccer to a girl?’”
“After the revolution, strict rules had been imposed on social life,” Mahsa says. “High school girls didn’t have access to many things, you couldn’t socialize freely with friends in cafes, restaurants or malls, as before. In 1998, I remember a soccer coaching program was launched for teenagers in a gym in Tehran. I went, but many of my friends weren’t allowed to come with me as their families were very religious and didn’t think soccer was a good sport for girls. When I would talk about soccer, many people thought I was crazy. There was an expression I would hear a lot, ‘Of what importance is soccer to a girl?’”
But by 2010, hopes were growing that Iran was becoming more open and tolerant to the idea of women following sports. Fatemeh remembers how that year, women were allowed to watch the Iranian national volleyball team compete in Tehran for the first time in decades. “I immediately bought tickets,” she says. “I can’t describe the feelings, how happy I felt to be at that small volleyball stadium, even though men and women were segregated. But we were only allowed to go for two or three games, before the ban was reinstated. The country’s Islamic theologians decided this was against Islam, and it should be stopped as soon as possible.”
However, over the past decade the rise of social media has provided Iran’s female soccer fans with a new outlet not only to follow the sport, but protest against the restrictions that limit their ability to watch it.
Social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked in Iran, but millions exploit the internet’s many backdoors to gain access. Proxies and virtual private networks are commonly used to bypass the blocks, with many ordinary Iranians engaged in a constant cat-and-mouse game with the authorities to discover new VPNs before they’re censored.
For many Iranian female soccer fans, social media has enabled them to access far more information on Iranian and European teams than ever before, and discover that there are more women within their own country who follow the sport than they previously thought. This has instigated a rapidly growing movement to protest against the many forms of discrimination they face. Earlier this week, Iranian fans and journalists used Twitter to speak out against a giant World Cup billboard erected in Tehran, displaying the faces of different Iranian soccer fans. All of the figures on the billboard are male.
"We, women, have no share in our country’s happiness," tweeted Twitter user @Banafshehjamali. “This is what we mean by gender discrimination and the elimination of half of the country's population.”
For many Iranian women, this type of eventuality, is only too familiar, but at least they finally have a voice.
“Growing up, we simply didn’t know if there were other girls in cities across the country who also loved soccer,” Mahsa says. “But social media has changed all of that. It’s given women more confidence to make their voices heard, and through that, made them more aware of the rights they deserve within society. There are female soccer fans who haven’t been able to travel to Brazil or Russia to support the Iran team at the World Cup, because their husbands have denied them permission to leave the country, and now they can protest against that.”
Stories such as that of Ghoncheh Ghavami, the Iranian-British woman who was jailed in 2014 after attending a volleyball match in Tehran in protest at the stadium ban, have propagated widely, encouraging a growing number of female soccer fans to organize their own protests outside stadiums. Last year when Iranian women were denied entry to watch their national team’s World Cup qualifier against Syria, widespread demonstrations were held outside the Azadi stadium. In recent years, many women have daringly disguised themselves as men with fake beards and moustaches to watch matches, later posting photos on Twitter and Instagram to inspire others to follow.
“When I was young, I had short hair but I never even thought about getting into a stadium by changing my appearance,” Mahsa says. “I didn’t even know of many girls who liked football. Now, a girl in a small city will do something and within a few hours, everyone in the country will know about it. And within the next week, girls across many cities will be trying to get into stadiums with the same idea. It helps them to be braver.”
But if they’re caught, punishments are typically severe. As it is illegal for a woman to enter a stadium they risk being arrested and security guards are permitted to use whatever force is necessary.
"There are some girls who are such intensive fans that they don’t care about what could happen to them, and so they’re prepared to take these risks.”
“They are incredibly brave,” Fatemeh says. “As well as imprisonment and beatings, their whole family will be interrogated by the authorities. But by prohibiting access to football, they are making it like a forbidden fruit. And there are some girls who are such intensive fans that they don’t care about what could happen to them, and so they’re prepared to take these risks.”
Over the next three weeks, Mahsa, Fatemeh, and a group of nine Iranian female fans who have travelled to the World Cup, are intending to defy their country’s regime by staging their own small protests against the rules back home during each of Iran’s matches.
During the tournament, Iran’s already strict rules regarding women and soccer, are notorious for becoming even stricter. Cafes and restaurants are typically forbidden from televising games live to prevent men and women mingling to watch soccer in public, while women travelling to the World Cup are officially warned to comply with the Islamist state values and wear the hijab in public.
“We are not going to wear the hijab,” says Masi, who has been involved in devising a plan to protest during Iran’s matches. “It’s none of their business what we wear. We have been discussing what we can do over Telegram and WhatsApp. We are all going to have t-shirts specially printed with messages such as ‘Why so many rules for Iranian women?’ and ‘End the stadium ban now!’ We are planning to have some small billboards with us. The Iranian television channels back home will censor us out and just show Iran’s parliamentary officials and their families who will be in hijab, but at least we will be able to make a statement to the rest of the world.”
Keenly aware that Iranian officials travelling to Russia will be monitoring them and their behavior, they are wary of attracting too much attention, but they hope that television cameras around the world will show their billboards, adding further publicity to the campaign for women to be allowed to freely enter soccer stadiums in Iran. Such exposure could convince FIFA to continue applying pressure to the Iranian authorities to change their laws.
But even the most minor of protests against Iran in another country, comes with its risks. “We are determined to do it but many of us are scared,” Fatemeh says. “Some of us work for public
services, and it’s completely possible that [some] could return home to find they’ve lost their jobs as a punishment. The police could launch investigations into us and our families. Anything is possible in Iran. And of course there will be hate messages on social media from the hardliners back home.”
There are, perhaps, signs pointing to a brighter future. In March, a sustained social media campaign ahead of FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s visit to the Tehran derby, saw Infantino raise the issue of stadium access for women with the Iranian president. Infantino later claimed the president had assured him that access would soon be granted.
However, Iran’s female soccer fans remain to be convinced.
“There are many in government who believe that women should be allowed to enter stadiums,” Fatemeh says. “But it isn’t their decision to make. The real power lies with the supreme leader who rules the Islamic state. I hope that within my lifetime, women no longer have to take risks for the basic rights of being able to watch a match. I think every one of us just wants to go to a stadium as a woman with respect.”