Tara Sepheri wanted to dress up as a boy but her father froze at the thought. It was deemed too risky. The disguise was intended to enable Tara to enter a football stadium to watch a men’s game in Iran. Women were banned then from watching men’s football, boxing, swimming; they still are not allowed in Iran. For the last 10 years, sporadically, women have dressed up as men to experience what it means to be sitting amidst thousands of fans and cheering for their team. If one has watched Jafar Panahi award-winning movie ‘Offside’, one would understand the scenario. Women were not allowed at games as they are deemed to be at risk of violence or verbal abuse.
Finally, after years, Tara knew what it was like to cheer for the national team at the stadium. She travelled to Russia to watch Iran’s first game against Morocco, an experience that will linger for a lifetime.
“Just the feeling of being able to cheer and shout for a team — that’s the most harmless fun you can have, and it’s a privilege and a luxury in Iran. How ridiculous is that? Just the freedom to go shout for the team that you care about,” Tara tells The Indian Express. She is a researcher with Human Rights Watch, where she investigates human rights abuse in Iran and Oman.
On Wednesday, for the first time, women in Tehran were allowed to enter the famous Azadi stadium to watch the Iran vs Spain game on a big screen. “That’s the closest they are going to get to watch Iran play,” says Tara. Even a small act like that feels like freedom. Even Saudi Arabia lifted the ban on women going to stadiums this January. Iran stands alone in this unflattering space.
“Spaces in city belong to all citizens. Cities and places where we live are the way we interact with each other. A government should create spaces for people to feel safe. Not allowing women to go to stadiums is basically eliminating women from public space. Not allowing people to experience such basic feelings of joy — of cheering for your favourite sports team. What’s the harm there? Iranian women are half of the population. You can’t eliminate them from public space,” Tara reasoned.
It was in 1981 that the ban on women from watching football games was introduced. In 2012, they added volleyball to the list. “There are variety of reasons, from religious grounds that women can’t be watching men playing. To security issues that men and women in the same place – they say they can’t ensure security as stadiums tend to be places where men use expletive language and the assorted risk of being together in the arena. They are all just excuses, of course,” Tara says.
On that day, all those years ago, when she tried to convince her father to allow her to dress as a boy, she had even brought a hat and sweater and went to the stadium to drop her father. But the risk was too high. “Instead, like all other Iranian women, I watched that game and other matches only on television.”
Little help from FIFA
In March, when FIFA president Gianni Infantino was at Azadi Stadium to watch a match between top sides Esteghlal and Persepolis, 35 Iranian women were arrested at the gates for trying to enter the stadium. The group detained included teenagers and women dressed as boys who regularly risk arrest to watch their teams. Infantino watched the game at a 100,000-seater stadium that excluded women. So Tara doesn’t think FIFA has tried its best. “That should not happen. They had the power and opportunity to stand up for a cause. FIFA can do much more, I think.”
In the recent past, Syrian women have been allowed at the Azadi Stadium. “Iranian women were more offended by that. It meant the issue came to nationality and foreign passports. The authorities had to allow Syrian women for a game against their country, as it’s necessary to do that so that they get to host international games in future. They can’t be seen stopping fans of other nations from watching games.”
Journalist Negar Ehsan had voiced the angst of many Iranian women when she wrote: “I have to confess, after I saw the photos of Saudi women in football stadium, I feel like crying for two reasons: I was happy for Saudi women who were oppressed for so long, and at the same time I was sad for how patient we have been.”
Women, Tara says, are allowed to watch the Iranian women’s football team. Even men. “The players wear head scarf and are fully covered. You can’t see their skin,” Tara says. The society is opening up and there are voices demanding that the ban be overturned. Even the men’s team captain has pitched in his support to the cause.
Tara went to a stadium in US, where she lives now, to watch a football game but it wasn’t the same feeling she experienced in Russia. “This team (Iran) mattered. It was just an amazing feeling to be among thousands of supporters — men and women – who have travelled both from Iran and abroad to cheer for the team. This is a team I deeply care about. I was proud to be there. People from all over the country were there, from diverse backgrounds — there were people who were wearing head scarfs and looked religious and there were people who didn’t dress up like that. All sitting together and watching. It was great, frankly overwhelming. It’s something I have waited all my life for.”