Tehran, Iran – Iranian officials have once more chosen to engage in a blame game after women who purchased tickets to watch a World Cup qualifier football match were greeted with pepper spray.
Iran ended up defeating Lebanon 2-0 in the match in the northeastern religious hub city of Mashhad on Tuesday, and since South Korea lost to the United Arab Emirates, Iran managed to secure its ascent to the Qatar games at the top of the Asian bracket.
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But there was not much room to celebrate as videos emerged following the match that showed large numbers of women – who were promised seats at the stadium – protesting at the gates.
Several videos showed women struggling after being pepper-sprayed by security guards who prevented them from entering the stadium despite holding tickets. One image showed a child crying in a young woman’s arms.
State television did not report the incident and tried to censor it when Iranian star Alireza Jahanbakhsh mentioned it during his post-match interview.
“I hope that from now on during home matches, our dear women can also spectate so we can make them happy as well,” Jahanbakhsh said during the live interview. But when it was aired again, his mention of the women spectators was edited out.
To add insult to injury, not only did the football federation not apologise, it doubled down and claimed women were not supposed to be allowed in from the beginning, and only nine women had attempted to buy tickets in the men’s section of the stadium, who will be compensated.
The federation’s statement on Wednesday also said women’s presence at the stadium could cause a “crisis” as “necessary grounds” were not provided.
Reports by various Iranian media on the day of the match indicated that up to 12,000 spectators, including 2,000 women, had purchased tickets. But confusion persisted until the last moment and ultimately women were forcefully kept out of the stadium.
Fatemeh Rahmani, Mashhad’s representative in parliament, claimed in a tweet on Wednesday that the fault lies with the sports ministry over a lack of “necessary infrastructures and cultural grounds” that would allow women’s entry into stadiums.
In the few instances where women have been allowed into Iranian stadiums, they have been accepted through separate gates that took them to seating sections without men, even if they were close family members. They also have to be provided with separate ambulances and emergency services in case of injury.
Women have been barred from entering stadiums since shortly after the country’s Islamic revolution in 1979 and have only managed to see inside football stadiums since 2018 after pressure and threats of suspension from FIFA and international organisations. They are still banned from all non-international matches.
It remains to be seen whether FIFA, football’s top governing body, or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), will punish Iranian football for officials’ treatment of women at the stadium.
Merhdad Seraji, a member of the Iranian football federation’s board, said in a tweet on Wednesday he heard “concerning news” from FIFA and AFC in relation to the Mashhad incident, without elaborating.
President Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday ordered his interior minister to investigate the pepper-spray assault. Parliament Speaker Mohammad Bagheri Ghalibaf also said he asked a parliamentary commission to look into what happened.
Attorney-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri said women’s treatment at the stadium gates was unacceptable and officials “should have used their brains”.
Tuesday’s match was only a more extreme version of the chaotic Iran-Iraq World Cup qualifier match in Tehran in late January, when there were many issues including patchy ticket sales. But a limited number of women managed to watch that match at the Azadi stadium in Tehran.