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Iranian women look on before FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between Iran and Cambodia at Azadi Stadium on Oct. 10, 2019 in Tehran, Iran.

Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images

One woman said she wanted to hug her ticket and cry. Another clasped both hands over her mouth at her first glimpse of the field’s lush green turf. Others painted flags on their cheeks and used their cellphones to document the moment.

When Iran’s national soccer team took the field Thursday at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium for an otherwise humdrum World Cup qualifier, the outsize interest in the game was not in the action on the field but on who was seated in the stands.

For the first time in almost four decades, women were allowed to buy tickets and attend a match in Iran.

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“Finally,” one fan said, “the gates are open to us.”

Women started gathering at the stadium several hours before the game, and many were already in their seats two hours before kickoff. Others arrived without tickets – several warnings were issued over loudspeakers telling ticketless spectators stranded outside that they would not be able to gain entry – after authorities limited the amount of seats available to women to a few thousand.

That made for a strange scene inside the stadium, with the one corner of the stands reserved for women packed to capacity while almost the entirety of the rest of the 78,000-seat arena remained largely empty. So new was the experience for many of the women that a small group of their colleagues was tasked with demonstrating to those in attendance – a mix of fans in Iranian colors and traditional chadors – how to chant.

The game between Iran and Cambodia would typically merit little interest as another mismatch between a regional heavyweight and an also-ran in an early qualifier for the 2022 World Cup. Iran needed only five minutes to open the scoring – celebrating only yards from the thousands of delighted women in the stands – and led by 7-0 at halftime. It ended 14-0.

But despite its lopsided nature, the game was among the most consequential sporting events to be played in years, as it marked the end of a prohibition that had been bitterly opposed. The decision to allow women to watch came only one month after a soccer fan died after setting herself on fire in protest of a six-month prison sentence for attending a club game this year.

The ban itself dates from 1981, introduced by hard-line conservatives, and is an unwritten rule that has denied women access to stadiums since then. In recent years, it has been extended to volleyball and basketball as the popularity of those sports has grown.

Iranian women and girls have long tried to overturn – or evade – the ban by organizing weekly protests or disguising themselves as men to slip inside stadiums. While government and soccer officials were unmoved, the activism gradually grabbed the attention of international rights groups and the Iranian public. It was also the subject of a 2006 movie, Offside, by famed Iranian director Jafar Panahi.

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But it was the September death of the woman who set herself ablaze, Sahar Khodayari, that had the biggest effect. The news of her death at the age of 29 spread widely online with the help of the hashtag #bluegirl – a reference to the color of the Tehran club she supported, Esteghlal.

The outcry quickly grew to include Iranian and international soccer players. Many Iranians – including a former national team captain – called for a boycott of all soccer games until the ban on women in stadiums was lifted.

Within weeks, the president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, said Iranian authorities had assured him that women would be allowed to attend international matches, beginning with the World Cup qualifier against Cambodia. For years, FIFA had avoided taking a hard line on Iran’s exclusion of women, but as public pressure increased, it left open the possibility of banning Iran, an Asian soccer powerhouse, from qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup.

In a speech at a women’s soccer conference in Milan, Italy, in September, Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president, told delegates that his organization could no longer wait.

But even as women gained access to the game, activists said that FIFA appeared to have extracted no assurances from Iran that women would be allowed to attend future domestic matches. They also pointed out that Iranian officials had placed an arbitrary cap on the number of women who could attend Thursday’s game.

“Part of me is happy, but they have basically created a wall,” said Maryam Shojaei, sister of Iran’s national team captain, Masoud Shojaei, and one of the leaders of the campaign to allow women into stadiums. “It’s not what we’ve been asking for. It’s not like everybody can go and sit freely with their brothers, fathers or husbands.”

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While Azadi stadium holds more than 78,000 spectators, only a few thousand tickets were reserved for women. Those sold out almost as soon as they became available.

Despite the demand – and the size of the stadium, which remained largely empty Thursday – Iranian officials made little effort to increase the allotment.

Once inside, the women were segregated from men by both empty stretches of seats and metal fencing erected around the sections reserved for women. Fans criticized the enclosure as a “cage,” and monitors kept watch on those inside. In one video posted online, a woman who had help up a sign paying tribute to Blue Girl was soon in a struggle with others who had taken it down.

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, who has for years lobbied FIFA to pressure Iran to lift the ban, said the soccer body should be criticized, given its failure to open the entire stadium to women.

“The women are eager to finally have the ban fall, so much so that a number of them will show up to purchase tickets at the gate, and they will show up to protest,” Worden said in a telephone interview. “That creates a really unacceptable situation, an unacceptable risk.”

Still, even the limited concessions to female fans resulted in counterprotests by Iranian hard-liners. One group rallied on the streets of Tehran this week holding banners denouncing what they said was capitulation in the face of pressure from the West.

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The hard-liners’ opposition did little to darken the mood at the stadium, though. The fans in the women’s sections sang and chanted throughout the game, and the persistent hum of vuvuzelas – the plastic horns that are a regular feature at Iran’s games – filled in any gaps in the noise.

After the match, Iran’s captain, Masoud Shojaei, led the team to a spot in front of the sections where the women had been corralled to applaud them for coming.

Still, there were indications that easing the restrictions will take more than allowing women to attend one game. Media credentials were denied to female photographers applying to document the match, and FIFA’s Infantino released a statement in which he hailed the day as a positive step but said that he now “looks more than ever towards a future when ALL girls and women wishing to attend football matches in Iran will be free to do so, and in a safe environment.”

Those concerns about safety, and fears of arrest, kept some fans away. Expecting a large number of security forces, some activists stayed away from the game. But at least one said she was willing to take the risk.

The woman, who runs the Open Stadiums network and uses the nickname Sara to conceal her identity, left for Europe over concerns for her safety but returned to Iran this week. She said she planned to take her mother to the stadium.

“After everything we’ve been through,” she said, “I just couldn’t not go.”

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