World Cup: Iranian activist enters a new world in St Petersburg

Barred from stadiums for men’s matches at home, an Iranian woman witnesses stunning win in Russia

The envelope might have been kept securely in her bag, but she still checked it every few minutes, just to make sure that the most precious of things was still there. It was something she had always wished for, but until now had always been denied.

“I keep coming back and checking, checking, checking,” she said, pulling out a long card from a zip pocket. “It is like a treasure to me.”

Held carefully in her two small hands was a prize millions of other soccer fans sometimes take for granted: a match ticket. To be precise, this was a ticket to Iran's opening game at this World Cup, against Morocco in St Petersburg on Friday. Her first ticket to see her national team play live. That she held it at all was the reason she could not stop checking to ensure that it was safe, and that it was real.

“It is so beautiful,” she said.


She had travelled to Russia from Iran, where women are barred from attending men’s matches. She has become an activist in a 13-year campaign to persuade the authorities to rescind the ban and, as such, uses the name Sara to conceal her real identity for fear of arrest.

Sara’s campaign began in 2005. At first, Sara, a sports obsessive who also follows volleyball and basketball, would protest with a few dozen other women outside Tehran’s vast Azadi Stadium. Azadi means “freedom” in Farsi.

"I remember in 2005, we wanted to watch football, and many educated people didn't recognise it as something that is a women's rights issue," she said. Initially, there was some success as they were allowed to gather. But after a violent crackdown, and following the failed Green Revolution in 2009 that led to a period of repression under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the protests stopped. Instead, Sara moved to social media, where she set up an anonymous account on Twitter, calling it @openstadiums.

Her Twitter account has helped give her local campaign global exposure, and won her new supporters.

"We first connected via social media," said Moya Dodd, an Australian soccer official who once sat on Fifa's ruling executive committee. "It was my job to represent those without a voice. I had to figure out how to do that."

Dodd managed to raise the issue of Iran's stadium ban with then-Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who in turn raised it privately and publicly after meeting with Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, in 2015. What was once a minority issue was now moving into the mainstream.

“She’s helped make the stadium ban a symbol of something much more: Iranian women’s right to fully participate in society,” Dodd said.

The issue is now a talking point in Iran. In July, after Iran qualified for the World Cup, the team was invited to meet with Rouhani. Iran's captain, Masoud Shojaei, took the opportunity to raise the ban on women at stadiums during the meeting. "Masoud is incredible," Sara said. "We are really proud we have this kind of captain."

But speaking out in Iran can have consequences. And Shojaei later was dropped from the national team after conservative politicians and commentators criticised him for playing a match with his Greek club against an Israeli team, something considered a red line in Tehran. (He was reintroduced into Iran's team shortly before the World Cup by the team's coach, Carlos Queiroz. )

In March, Sara was among three dozen female soccer fans and activists arrested and held for a number of hours after trying to enter the Azadi –0 some while dressed as men – for the biggest match in the country, a local showdown between Persepolis and Esteghlal that was watched by as many as 100,000 men. Sara managed to escape that day, with the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, in the stadium as he watched the game with Iranian officials.

Infantino did not raise the issue of the ban on women publicly while in Iran, but he later said he had brought it up privately, and had been assured by Rouhani that there were plans to end it.

“It is really stressful, it is difficult when you are living in such conditions,” Sara said of her efforts to end the ban as a private citizen. “Any move you make, you have to think, is going to put myself or my family in danger. You feel terrorised.”

But with only a few hours until kick-off Friday in St Petersburg, Sara was torn. On the one hand, she wanted to enjoy a match without pressure, the way most women in the world can. Yet she was also aware that the World Cup was a platform to let a wider audience know her cause in Iran.

“It is their right, they have to be in the stadiums,” she said of Iranian women. “Football is not for men only.”

On Friday, many Iranian women joined the procession of fans to the St Petersburg stadium. Some of the women were from Tehran, others were drawn to Russia from the global Iranian diaspora. Sara met another Iranian activist who lives in the United States, and they unfolded two banners. The one held by Sara said: “Support Iranian Women to Attend Stadiums #NoBan4Women.” Passing Iranian fans, buoyed by their pre-game excitement, offered support, or took a moment to pose for photographs with the signs.

Russian police officers looked on but did not intervene. As the start of the game approached, the groups that had gathered split up and began to head to their seats. Sara found her gate, and took her place in line. Ever since getting off the bus that had brought her near the stadium, she said, she had been unable to suppress a smile.

“Every time we went to demonstrate, it never happened,” she said of her previous attempts to buy a ticket in Iran. “Now, football is going from two dimensions to three dimensions.”

This time, she knew, would be different. This time, for the first time, her ticket would be accepted. This time, she would be welcomed inside.

“Wish me luck,” she said as she disappeared into the crowd beyond the security check.

More than 60,000 supporters, split fairly evenly between the two nations, watched the game. Morocco looked the more accomplished of the teams as the game proceeded, and the stadium was filled with the incessant buzz of vuvuzelas. Both teams had good chances, which they squandered, and there was a huge ovation for Shojaei when he limped off midway through the second half.

The game looked to be drifting toward a 0-0 stalemate when, in the final minutes, Morocco's Aziz Bouhaddouz accidentally diverted a swerving pass past his own goalkeeper. The Iranian players on the bench invaded the field to join in the celebration until they reluctantly returned to count down the final few seconds of the first World Cup victory for Iran in 20 years. The last, in 1998, was a famous 2-1 victory against the United States.

After the final whistle, the players made three laps of honour as Iran’s fans seemed reluctant to leave. Finally, the fans poured into the concourses and onto the plazas outside. Sara, who had manoeuvred her way through the crowds to the exit, looked dazed.

“I don’t know how to celebrate,” she said, trying to explain the feeling of watching her first World Cup match. “I was shocked.”

But the shock didn’t last long.

“It was something I had never experienced before,” she said before rejoining the party. “I need to go to more games.” - New York Times