Iran’s World Cup qualifier against Cambodia on Thursday will be a landmark moment for the country, as women will be able to officially enter a football stadium for the first time in decades.
The initial allocation of 3,500 tickets for female fans was quickly sold out – reportedly in under an hour – before an additional 1,100 were released for the match at the national Azadi Stadium.
“This is a hugely historic moment for Iranian football, but also for the Iranian women who have protested in the face of [the risk of] being caught and almost certainly sent to Evin Prison, the famous prison for political prisoners in Tehran,” football author and writer James Montague told CNN.
“All eyes are on Tehran to see if this actually happens. I was in Tehran last year when 30 women were arrested outside the ground and Gianni Infantino was actually at the stadium to watch the Tehran Derby when that happened,” added Montague, referring to the FIFA president.
“So everybody is aware of this problem but, of course, with issues like this, you’re worried they might have sold 3,500 tickets for women but there will be multiple numbers outside trying to get in.
“It’s a very changeable situation and at the last minute it could switch, so everybody is waiting, holding their breath and hoping that Iranian women will finally get to see the national team play a game of football in their home country for the first time in 40 years.”
READ: FIFA tells Iran – Women have to be allowed into soccer stadiums
‘Discriminatory, deceptive, dangerous’
Iran’s ban on women attending sports stadiums is not written into law but was put in place shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. FIFA president Infantino recently called the ban “unacceptable” and urged authorities to lift it ahead of the next round of 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
According to Iran’s Fars News Agency the women will be segregated from the men and watched over by 150 female police officers. Photos on social media showed fencing being put up around the designated women-only sections.
While Thursday’s game marks a step forward for Iranian women watching football matches, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the cap of 4,600 female fans “discriminatory, deceptive, and dangerous.”
“The effective 5% quota on seats for women contravenes FIFA’s constitution, statutes, and its human rights policy,” the organization said. “Article 4 of its statutes states that discrimination against women ‘is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion’ of the FIFA member.’”
When asked if these conditions truly meet its statutes that prohibit gender discrimination, FIFA told CNN: “FIFA’s stance on the access of women to the stadiums in Iran has been firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran. For all football matches.
“In line with our stance, we are working to ensure the safe access of women to tomorrow’s FIFA World Cup qualifier between Iran and Cambodia. We reaffirm our position that the number of women in the stadium needs to be determined by the demand for such tickets, without any arbitrary limitation being imposed.
“Further details on the next steps to be implemented to ensure the future access of women to the stadiums in Iran will follow once we have performed a thorough assessment of Thursday’s match based on the input provided by the FIFA delegation that is present in Tehran.”
The Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI) was not immediately available for comment.
On Tuesday, Iranian Twitter users started using the hashtag #WakeUpFIFA, urging world football’s governing body to allow more women to attend the qualifier against Cambodia.
READ: Iranian woman denied soccer stadium access dies after setting herself on fire
READ: FIFA must act after death of Iran’s ‘Blue Girl’, says activist
In recent months, FIFA has come under increasing pressure to force Iran to overturn its ban on women entering sports stadiums, in particular following the death of Sahar Khodayari, a female fan who set herself on fire after she was denied access to a football stadium in Tehran.
Dubbed the “Blue Girl” on social media after the colors of her favorite Iranian football team, Esteghlal, Khodayari was charged with “openly committing a sinful act” by “appearing in public without a hijab” when she attempted to enter a stadium “dressed as a man” in March, according to human rights group Amnesty International.
Khodayari appeared in a Tehran court earlier this month. When the case was adjourned, she poured gasoline over herself and set herself on fire. She died on Monday September 9.
James Masters contributed to this report.