Female football fans may return to Iran stadiums

Female football fans may return to Iran stadiums

James M. Dorsey Hürriyet Daily News
Female football fans may return to Iran stadiums

In these file photos from Jan 15, 2011, Iranian women football fans during an Asian Cup match against North Korea in Doha. AP photos

Iranian women football fans have set their hopes on the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to return them to the terraces after having been banned for years from stadiums in an effort to prevent them from looking at men’s bodies.

The women expect the AFC’s insistence that Iran adhere to the Asian football body’s standards this fall when it hosts the AFC Under-16 Championship and grant them access to matches during the tournament. However, they would also really like to see that spark a permanent lifting of the ban, which was imposed after the Shah was overthrown in 1979.

“So far as the AFC is concerned, there should be no sex discrimination regarding the presence of men and women at stadiums,” AFC Director of National Team competition Shin Mangal was quoted as saying by the Shiite news agency Shafaqna.

The AFC said it had received assurances from Ali Kaffashian, the head of the Football Federation (IRIFF) that they would comply with AFC regulations.

The AFC quoted Kaffashian as saying that the IRIFF is “fully ready to follow all the requirements and instructions from AFC,” when speaking at the drawing ceremony. The Iranian football boss repeated his position in remarks to the Iranian reformist newspaper Sharq.

In an editorial the newspaper said “the youth championships could create a great change in Iranian football. They are an excellent opportunity.”

The IRIFF’s apparent willingness to counter Iranian policy and adhere to international standards has sparked significant domestic debate that pits conservatives against liberals. Proponents of a permanent lifting of the ban are weakened by a power struggle within Iran’s football elite.

Power struggle

Two proponents of lifting the ban are at each other’s throats.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an avid football fan, who at times micromanages the affairs of the IRIFF and six years ago unsuccessfully attempted to lift the ban, is trying to get Kaffashian’s March re-election as head of the Iranian football body annulled by the courts.

Ahmadinejad’s attorney general has argued that Kaffashian could not hold public office as a former civil servant even though that was not an issue four years ago when he was first elected with the president’s backing. Ahmadinejad turned against Kaffashian because Iranian football has failed to perform internationally under his leadership. The president had hoped to shore up his tarnished image and decreasing popularity by associating himself with the country’s most popular sport. For that tactic to work, he needed a football success that Kaffashian failed to deliver.

In effect, Kaffashian is the fall guy for the failure of successive national coaches to deliver performance even though Ahmadinejad took a direct interest in their appointment.

Ahmadinejad, however, also turned against Kaffashian because the football pitch in Tehran and Tabriz on Kaffashian’s watch has repeatedly become a venue for protest against his government. The government last year suspended football matches in Tehran during the anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

Difficult task

While Iran is almost certain to comply with AFC rules to ensure that it does not lose the hosting of the games, the more difficult task will be turning the breaching of the wall into its destruction. It would not be the first time that Iran opportunistically complies with international football requirements only to return to its discriminatory practice afterwards. Iran allowed women into the stadium during World Cup qualifiers played in the country in 2007, but maintained the ban for all other matches. “Women looking at a man’s body, even if not for the sake of gratification, is inappropriate. Furthermore, Islam insists that men and women should not mix,” said Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani back in 2006 when Ahmadinejad failed to get the ban lifted permanently.

Ahmadinejad’s effort was in part sparked by the fact that significant numbers of Iranian women were succeeding to circumvent the ban by sneaking into stadiums dressed as men. The practice attracted attention when Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi won international acclaim for his documentary “Offside,” which tells the story of a group of young girls who dress up as boys to pass through stadium gates only to be detained. A second more recent movie, “Shirin Was A Canary,” recounts the tale of a girl who is expelled from school due to her love of football.

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