The last time Bebak Hashemi tried to enter a football stadium, she almost ended up behind bars. It was a little more than a decade ago in Tehran. Iran’s national football team was training and the session was kept open for fans. Bebak, in her early teens back then, waited impatiently outside the Azadi Stadium, hoping she would be let in.
Being the only girl in the crowd, she attracted curious glares. Her country’s laws prohibited her from entering the stadium but Bebak stook there unrelenting. Ultimately, a guard manning the giant steel gates chased her away, not arresting her only because she was ‘too small’.
That was 2004. Eleven years on, in Bangalore, Bebak finally saw Team Melli up close. The 25-year-old dental student was among the hundreds of Iranian fans – including nearly a dozen women – who followed their national team from the Bangalore airport to the team hotel and finally to the Sree Kanteerva Stadium, where Iran will play India in a 2018 World Cup qualifier on Tuesday. Bangalore, they say, has a huge Irani student population, most of them studying medicine.
Bebak, who has been living here for the last two years, has followed fortunes of her team through internet and television. Today was the first time she saw them in flesh. “It’s unreal. Who would have thought it would happen here, in Bangalore,” she says, trembling in excitement of clicking a selfie with Iran’s most famous player Sardar Azmoun. “In Iran, this would not have been possible. Girls do not enjoy as much freedom and there are chances I would have been jailed for just entering a stadium if I did something like this back home. And ironically, the football and volleyball stadiums in Tehran are named Azadi.”
Entry inside a sports stadium is forbidden for women in Iran since 1982. The ban was partially lifted in June following multiple protests and interventions by presidents of several sports bodies. But football venues are still out of bounds for them. Darya Safai, who fled her country during the student protests in 2000, wrote to FIFA president Sepp Blatter last year to urge Iran to lift the ban on women. Blatter would do exactly that during FIFA’s executive committee meeting earlier this year, saying the situation was ‘intolerable’. But his plea did not yield desired results.
Safai now lives in Belgium and founded the group ‘Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums’. They travel to cities where the Iranian team plays, wearing t-shirts and carrying banners that carry their message. “Those who have enforced the ban on us say women’s presence at a sports event is against Islamic laws. But we are not the only Islamic country. There are countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan who have Muslim majority but allow women. The real reason is they want women to be at home and keep their contribution to the society marginal,” Safai tells The Indian Express over phone from Belgium.
Football and volleyball are two most famous sports in Iran, even among women. Ban on women attending volleyball matches was enforced just two years ago and it was believed it would be lifted when the rule was relaxed in June. However, the country’s hardline conservatives opposed the move, which meant that women were kept away from the stands when Iran played USA. It was the first time an international match was held in Iran after British-Iranian woman Ghoncheh Ghavami made headlines after being jailed for attending a volleyball game in 2014.
Gilda, an MBA student, says there have been occasions when women have tried to masquerade as men to enter football stadiums. It’s straight out of Iranian movie Offside, which is based on girls who try to watch a World Cup qualifier against Bahrain by disguising themselves as boys. Gilda grew up in a house where sport was closely followed. While her father and brothers frequently went to watch Iran play at the Azadi Stadium, she couldn’t accompany them. This Tuesday, she will finally watch her team play. “It’s unfair but that’s the law of the land so we can’t do much. I have heard stories of girls going to extreme lengths just to catch a glimpse of their favourite stars. It’s unfortunate but that’s how it is,” Gilda says with a resigned look.
Gilda and Bebak are a part of the hundreds who followed the team whole of Sunday. Mahsa Malekzadeh, a 24-year-old dental student, snuck inside the team hotel, waited for nearly five hours to meet Iran’s Portuguese coach Carlos Queiroz. Going by the reception he got, the 62-year-old seems to be more popular than some of the players among the fans. And understandably so. Queiroz, after all, led Iran to a respectable World Cup campaign last year and, at 40, has also made them Asia’s highest-ranked team.
Speculations were rife over the 62-year-old’s future with the Iranian team, with reports suggesting he had resigned. But the fans are grateful to him for staying on. “He is a Portuguese citizen but still he has done so much for our team. He has made a lot of sacrifices to take Iran where they are right now so we are indebted to him,” says Mahsa, who greeted Queiroz with a bouquet of flowers.
The players too gladly obliged the fans who got selfies clicked and autographs signed as the Iranians virtually took over the stadium on Sunday evening, cheering on their side during an hour-long training session. So loud were they that it would have been difficult to guess the team that was playing at home.
After the training session, as the fans spilled onto the field – thus delaying India’s practise – the security guards had to step in and force them out. But Bebak did not mind. On Tuesday, she knows, they won’t stop her from walking through the gates.