How the Women of Iran Are Winning Their Own World Cup Battle
Just as their national team clinched a first World Cup victory in 20 years, the women of Iran are aiming to win their own battle to ensure days like this are not only experienced once in a lifetime.
They are currently banned from entering stadiums in their country. The women can watch on television or listen on the radio, but try to get into an actual stadium to watch a game, and the threat of arrest is genuine. A night in a cell, a reality.
This World Cup Group B opener was about more than football. It was a fight for freedom.
And now they have tasted the World Cup, felt the ecstasy of celebrating a late winning goal, they want more of it. Rightly so.
Support for them to watch football in Iran is swelling like never before, and we were there to get a feel for how they intend to make it happen.
Love for the Game
Parisa Artin was among the first Iranians to touch down on Russian soil. She arrived in Moscow at the beginning of the week with friends and family, both men and women, to soak up the World Cup atmosphere.
Like many women who have made a similar journey, she feels strongly about making a statement to her government back home about the right to watch football. But more than that, she genuinely loves the game.
"We really want to be able to enter stadiums in our own country," she said. "We want to support our team. It is not fair; we want freedom for all. So many women are real supporters of football but have to follow on the television or social media. Our players are not used to seeing Iranian women cheering for them at the game.
"They sometimes see women from other countries at matches, but not from Iran. All we want is to be able to put our face paint on, go and watch the game, and support our team."
By Thursday most Iranians were making their way to St. Petersburg ahead of their opening match against Morocco.
Hope for the Future
Matchday for Iran, and even with six hours until kick-off, fans begin to stream towards the ground—a half-hour journey from where most supporters are staying.
In the centre of town they have been mingling with Moroccans for the past 24 hours, taking photos and facing off for chants while proudly waving their flags.
The women of Iran are clearly delighted to be part of things. They have faces painted, banners wrapped around them, smiles on their faces.
A group of four friends make their way slowly to the stadium, and I ask for a word in English. They oblige. I laugh at their outfit, as they are linked together by a giant suit that stretches across them, spelling out Iran.
The woman wearing the letter "R" is Maigan Nazary, and she begins to explain how it feels to be heading to watch her national team.
"This is the first time we have been to a game together like this. I find it very strange that we are forbidden from going to the game in our own country—it is not like this for volleyball or any other sport. Just football. It is because of our culture and government; they don't let us go to the stadiums.
"I am not OK with it, but we have to obey the rules. I like football though, like a lot of women in Tehran.
"We hope for change, but it is not going to happen now. Maybe it will happen for my children—I will hope for that."
And then Maigan starts talking about the game and how nervous she is.
"We have been anxious all morning, awake for hours," she says, pretty seriously. "But I think we can win."
Making the Most of an Opportunity
The walk to Saint Petersburg Stadium is long and straight, with trees looming from each side. No vehicles can get close to the stadium, meaning everyone must make a two-kilometre trek to the ground.
Fortunately, most take the advice of FIFA to head along early, and it's 3:40 p.m. when I begin to chat to Ali Moussavi and his girlfriend, Shide.
"It's great for us to be here together," he begins to tell me.
"But it's especially great for women," Shide takes on the conversation. "We are not allowed in our stadiums in our own country."
The point is made as though a person from outside Iran may not be aware of the situation. It becomes clear throughout the day that this opportunity to spread the word is one they are taking seriously.
Ali and Shide have travelled from Tehran with other friends, and he explains how the tournament being held in Russia has helped make it possible for so many to make the trip, given their journey was around four hours.
"I don't think the situation in Iran will change," Shide admits. "That's why we are making the most of this opportunity to come to this game together. I wanted to see exactly what it is like to go to a football match."
As they make their way onwards to the stadium, more and more fans arrive around the huge fountain that sits in front of the impressive stadium.
Moroccan fans chant loudly, sometimes releasing fireworks into the air. But Iran supporters are vocal too, and one woman begins a chorus as she claps into the air.
I speak to her briefly, and she explains she does not know much about football—but she could not resist the opportunity to be at the World Cup with her friends.
A Release of Emotion
Stretched along the grass on one side of the walkway is a flag in support of Iranian women to enter their own stadiums, and just past the banner three women sit on a bench, alongside a man.
They are casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts, but with Iran flags painted on their faces.
It's easily apparent that this is a family of four, with the father on one end and his wife sat between their two daughters.
One of the daughters, Sharabanoo, tells me what the day means to her.
"It has been tough to get here because the price of the dollar has been rising, but we have managed it. Also, it is nice not to be dressed like this," she says, pointing to the picture of her Fan ID, in which she is wearing a hijab.
"It makes a difference to me, how I dress. We want to be free. We want to have a choice over what we wear when we are in the streets. I am more happy wearing these clothes.
"It is the first time we have all travelled together like this as a family to a football match, and we are very excited. Iran does not have the same help as other teams in terms of the matches we play or boots the players wear. But we believe we can win."
An Iranian journalist, Alireza Ashraf, has helped interpret while I speak to the family, and he joins me for food at an Oktoberfest-style restaurant called Aplenhaus next to the stadium.
We settle at a long bench, next to a group of friends who drink big tankards of beer and watch Egypt v Uruguay on a giant screen. The women of the group are every bit as wrapped up in the whole drinks and football as their male counterparts.
I ask Alireza what he thinks of the situation with women going to games in their own country, and whether it can change.
"For the women, just being here is a release of emotion," he says. "They love being here and they are making the most of this big opportunity. I actually have a good feeling about this moment.
"Since the team qualified, there has been more talk about the fact Iranian women cannot go to stadiums in our country, and it is a good thing. Some people have now been convinced that they do deserve that right, but others in power still need convincing.
"More and more people are supporting this campaign, and the authorities talk about the fact they should do it. But it's difficult to convince everyone in the government. I think it can be solved in the next three or four years, though. I do. Step by step."
The Spirit of Iran
It takes almost an hour to get inside the stadium, as thorough security checks and a sell-out crowd lead to huge queues.
But the wait does not dampen the enthusiasm of either set of supporters. As I take my seat I notice a lady, perhaps 70 years old, who tells me she does not know anything about football but wanted to come to the match with her granddaughter. It was clearly a symbolic moment.
The game itself is dominated early on by Morocco, but Sardar Azmoun wastes an opportunity to give Iran the lead just before half-time.
At the break, I speak to a couple sitting nearby about their experience so far.
"This is my first-ever time in a stadium. It is amazing," Roshanak beams. "I have always wondered what it would be like in a big stadium, watching the national team, and now I am experiencing this amazing atmosphere. It is just as good as I hoped. It would have maybe been even better if we got that goal!"
Her partner, Saeid, laughs, and I tell them not to give up hope. "Never," they say.
As the game wears on, it seems the humidity of the late afternoon has taken its toll on the players as play slows down and becomes less intense. But there is a late twist.
In time added on, a set-piece is swung into the Morocco box, and Aziz Bouhaddouz is the man who has the unfortunate claim to an own goal that wins the game for Iran.
The stadium explodes into screams and cheers as supporters of Iran embrace each other.
This goal is about more than one match. It's about belief and never giving in. It's a trait the Iranian women will take into their own battle to make sure that, one day, they are given the right to enjoy moments like this more often.