A Victory For Iranian Women And A Model For Change

Co-authored by Jamal Abdi and Assal Rad

The battle to allow Iranian women to attend soccer games at stadiums has been waged by women’s rights advocates and other political activists inside Iran for many years. As depicted in Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film, Offside, it is an issue not only of gender rights and equality, but also one that carries deep emotions tied to national pride and the love of sport and country. In Panahi’s celebrated film, a group of women are caught disguising themselves as men to sneak into the stadium and attend a World Cup qualifying match. Though the crux of the film is the dialogue between the women and the guards, the film’s ending highlighted the challenges Iranian women continue to face. Ending bittersweet, the film shows real footage of Iranians celebrating their win in the game, while these women–still barred from entering the stadium–listened to their nation’s victory from a bus as they are driven away from the stadium.

But finally, some good news. On October 10th, Iranian authorities relented and finally allowed Iranian women to attend their first major soccer match since the early days of the revolution. To cap off the victory—and perhaps fueled by the positive energy that is almost palpable in the photos and videos of women singing and celebrating at the match—Team Melli scored an unbelievable 14 goals on their way to routing the opposing team. Not a bad day all around for Iranians.

The struggle for human rights inside Iran has been a long and harrowing affair. Among Iranian groups in the diaspora, legitimate efforts to support that struggle too often devolve into virtue signaling and ideological litmus tests, rather than moving meaningful policy and constructive engagement. The victory in securing women’s rights to enter soccer stadiums—albeit small—presents an opportunity to assess what went right and how such incremental changes can be emulated and built upon.

From the outset, the movement was better set up for success than most social movements attempting to change Iran’s behavior because it was led by and for Iranians inside Iran. It involved tremendous sacrifices, including the ultimate sacrifice paid by “Blue Girl” Sahar Khodayari as well as those of other female soccer fans imprisoned for daring to defy Iranian authorities in their quest to secure equal rights. Their efforts were amplified by human rights groups on the outside and media outlets that shone a spotlight on these womens’ struggle for equal treatment. These efforts were fashioned into leverage—public pressure—upon FIFA, which in turn drove the governing body to utilize its own leverage to press Iran’s authorities to make a change.

Ending Iran’s economic isolation would give them something to lose if authorities fail to uphold human rights standards.

Of course, FIFA’s pressure was only possible because Iran had a stake in the game, quite literally–its ability to participate in the game itself. Imagine if FIFA had been sanctioned out of Iran like so many other entities, companies, and even entire governments who have no relationships with Iran and thus have nothing to leverage to incentivize compromises. In our case, as George W. Bush famously said, the U.S. has sanctioned itself out of influence inside of Iran. And, thanks to the one-way sanctions regime of the Trump administration, we have helped ensure that much of the world has now been sanctioned out of influence as well. Rather than being able to emulate FIFA’s success in influencing Iranian policies, entities that care enough to change Iranian government behavior are left doing what our government does: issuing ultimatums and fantastic demands with little to trade-in other than the threat of even more punishment, which Iran’s government has decided it can cope with.

Now imagine if the U.S. was actually abiding by the Iran deal and American companies had a commercial footprint, American schools collaborated with Iranian schools to facilitate academic exchanges, and our governments were even working together on science and environmental projects. Then Iran would actually have something to lose if there was a chance those companies, those schools, and those other entities with real connections to Iran would leave as FIFA threatened. Instead, our policy of isolation has left Iran’s government with nothing to lose.

The best thing we can do to support human rights in Iran, as individuals of Iranian heritage and as advocates of social progress in Iran, is to encourage dialogue…

There have, of course, been other human rights victories before soccer matches. Our organization worked to support the establishment of a human rights rapporteur in Iran. The effort was a welcome departure from the type of human rights work we in the U.S. are unfortunately too often resigned to: statements of condemnation, symbolic gestures, or inflammatory rhetoric that is unlikely to incentivize any country’s leadership to consider altered behavior. The UN mandate established a direly needed communication channel, which after years of resistance , Iranian authorities eventually opened up to. Though it is rarely discussed, the rapporteur’s efforts helped move Iranian authorities to end capital punishment for drug offenses, effectively saving thousands of lives as the charge was often used nefariously to settle political scores and stifle dissidents. These are the incremental victories needed to affect change. They will be felt in ways that mere statements of ideological purity and condemnations from afar rarely achieve.

The best thing we can do to support human rights in Iran, as individuals of Iranian heritage and as advocates of social progress in Iran, is to encourage dialogue—multilateral, bilateral, track two, you name it —so that there are actual forums to engage on human rights and actual stakes involved beyond empty posturing. Ending Iran’s economic isolation would give them something to lose if authorities fail to uphold human rights standards. This in tandem with spotlighting human rights abuses can uplift the efforts of human rights advocates inside Iran. What we cannot do, lest we further harm civil society in Iran, is to co-opt the Iranian peoples’ struggles and movements, or allow others to exploit these, for ulterior motives.

As Iranian Americans, eager to help fastrack social progress in Iran, must hold our own government accountable here in the United States. While the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran hinders how much we can do from tens-of-thousands of miles away, we are able to press the U.S. government to act credibly so that we can be part of legitimate efforts to hold governments, including Iran’s, to international standards.

There is much work to be done for Iranians to realize the human rights to which they are entitled. As an outside entity, we must operate strategically and with humility towards those inside Iran doing the real work. This important achievement by Iranian women showed us that not only is there a path to progress in Iran, but also that the patient dedication of the Iranian people—when uplifted from the outside with humility rather than undermined by demands for maximalist ultimatums—can yield the sweetest victories.


Jamal Abdi is president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) and the executive director of NIAC Action. He formerly served as policy adviser on foreign affairs, immigration and defense issues in the U.S. Congress. Abdi has written for The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy and blogs at The Huffington Post. He is a frequent guest contributor in print, radio and television, including appearances on Al Jazeera, NPR and BBC News.

Assal Rad is a research fellow at the National Iranian American Council. She received her PhD in History at the University of California, Irvine. Follow her on Twitter @assalrad

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