Iran — AFC puts Iran on the spot on women’s rights

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

The women expect the AFC’s insis­tence that Iran adhere to the Asian soc­cer body’s stan­dards when it hosts this fall the AFC Under-16 Cham­pi­onship to grant them access to match­es dur­ing the tour­na­ment but would like to see that spark a per­ma­nent lift­ing of the ban imposed after the over­throw of the Shah in 1979. 

“So far as 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 Shi­ite news agency Shafaqna. 

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

The AFC quot­ed Mr. Kaf­fashi­an as say­ing at the draw­ing of the groups for the tour­na­ment that the IRIFF is “ful­ly ready to fol­low all the require­ments and instruc­tions from AFC.” The Iran­ian soc­cer boss repeat­ed his posi­tion in remarks to 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 soc­cer elite. 

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

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

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s attor­ney gen­er­al has argued that Mr. 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. 

Mr. Ahmadine­jad turned against Mr. Kaf­fashi­an because Iran­ian soc­cer has failed to per­form inter­na­tion­al­ly under his lead­er­ship. The pres­i­dent had hoped to shore up his tar­nished image and drop­ping pop­u­lar­i­ty by asso­ci­at­ing him­self with the country’s most pop­u­lar sport. For that tac­tic to work, he need­ed a soc­cer suc­cess that Mr. Kaf­fashi­an failed to deliver. 

In effect, Mr. Kaf­fashi­an is the fall guy for the fail­ure of suc­ces­sive nation­al coach­es to deliv­er per­for­mance even though Mr. Ahmadine­jad took a direct inter­est in their appoint­ment. The coach­es failed to take Iran to the 2010 World Cup finals or tri­umph in the 2011 Asian Cup. Iran still stands a chance for qual­i­fy­ing for the 2014 Brazil World Cup but that will do Mr. Ahmadine­jad lit­tle good after his sup­port­ers were trounced in par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in March. 

Mr. Ahamdine­jad, how­ev­er, also turned against Mr. Kaf­fashi­an because the soc­cer pitch on Mr. Kaffashian’s watch has repeat­ed­ly in Tehran and Tabriz, the cap­i­tal of East Azer­bai­jan, has become a venue for protest against his gov­ern­ment. The gov­ern­ment, aware that the pitch was an impor­tant incu­ba­tor of the revolt that top­pled Egypt’s Hos­ni Mubarak and has played a role in pop­u­lar revolts else­where in the Mid­dle East and North Africa, last year sus­pend­ed soc­cer match­es in Tehran dur­ing cel­e­bra­tions of the anniver­sary of the Islam­ic revolution. 

While Iran is almost cer­tain to com­ply with AFC rules to ensure that it does not lose the host­ing of the games, more dif­fi­cult will be turn­ing the breach­ing of the wall into its destruc­tion. It would not be the first time that Iran oppor­tunis­ti­cal­ly com­plies with inter­na­tion­al soc­cer require­ments only to return 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 Mr. Ahmadine­jad failed to get the ban lift­ed permanently. 

Mr. 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 that 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 for her love of soccer. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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