Iran fans unfurl banner at World Cup in support of women

Iranian fans dance in front of 'Saint Petersburg' stadium prior the group B match between Morocco and Iran at the 2018 soccer World Cup in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, June 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Iranian fans at the national team’s first game at the World Cup unfurled a banner protesting Iran’s ban on women attending soccer matches back home.

The banner read ”(hash)NoBan4Women” and ”Support Iranian Women to Attend Stadiums” and it was held aloft during the match against Morocco in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on Friday.

After it was initially unfurled, during the first half of the game, there was a brief commotion as it was put away. The reason for the commotion wasn’t immediately clear as three stewards moved across to where the banner was, on the bottom row near to one of the goals.

It then remained unfurled for the remainder of the first half. Then, in the second half, the banner moved up the field near the other goal.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iranian women have been banned from attending soccer matches and other male-only sporting events.

A partial exception to the ban on women was made in June 2015 when a small number were allowed to watch volleyball in Tehran .

The decision came following public outcry a year earlier, after British-Iranian student Ghoncheh Ghavami was detained while trying to attend a men’s volleyball match at Azadi. She spent more than 100 days in prison, much of it in solitary confinement.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Sajedeh Norouzi waved a small Iranian flag during an Olympic volleyball match – her first time in a sports stadium.

Before Friday evening’s match, fans from Iran and Morocco mingled on the streets of St. Petersburg, wearing their countries’ flags, blowing whistles and chanting songs without any animosity. Enthusiastic Iranian women were among them.

That contrasted with the one of the main squares in Tehran, where a billboard portrays fans celebrating and holding aloft the World Cup, accompanied by the slogan ”One nation, one heartbeat.” There were no women on it.

Some fans were keen to express themselves as they arrived at the imposing St. Petersburg Stadium.

”It’s my first time as an Iranian female to be in a stadium. I’m so excited,” a young Iranian woman, who gave her name only as Nazanin, told The Associated Press. She had the colors of the Iranian flag drawn on her cheek.

One couple came with a banner reading ”4127 km (2,564 miles) to be at the stadium as a family” expressing protest against the ban. Having travelled so far to be together in a stadium, they were keen to make the point.

”We should come here, 4,127 kilometers to be at the stadium as a family. Why? This is stupid,” said the man, who gave his name only as Amin. He was supported by his wife, who said she was extremely happy to be finally going to the stadium.

Nazanin and Amin asked not to be identified by their last names because of the sensitivity of the issue at home in Iran.

Players have also previously lent their support to the cause.

Iran captain Masoud Shojaei, who is playing in his third World Cup, has been a vocal advocate of ending the ban, as has former Bayern Munich midfield Ali Karimi – who played 127 matches for Iran and was formerly assistant to Iran coach Carlos Queiroz.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with FIFA president Gianni Infantino in Tehran on March 1. On the same day, 35 women were detained for trying to attend the Tehran derby between Esteghlal and Persepolis, known as the Red-Blue derby and which Infantino attended.

Women disguising themselves as men have tried to enter soccer stadiums in Iran before, some of them successfully doing so and posting photos of themselves in beards and wigs on social media. A group known on Twitter as OpenStadiums has been pushing for access, describing itself as ”a movement of Iranian women seeking to end discrimination (and) let women attend stadiums.”

Associated Press video journalist Iuliia Subbotovska contributed to this report.

More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire