A decision by Iranian authorities to allow a small group of selected women to watch an October 16 soccer match between Iran and Bolivia at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) Stadium was welcomed by the country’s reformist press as a step forward and a victory for Iranian women, who have been banned from men’s sports events.
Yet, in a sign that the joy and victorious mood may be short-lived, a senior judiciary official quickly blasted the women’s presence at the stadium, saying that it was sinful for women to watch "half-naked" men play soccer.
Photos of the female spectators looking happy and giving the victory sign went viral on social media and were republished in several daily newspapers. The women were reportedly relatives of Iranian national team players, relatives of members of Iran's soccer federation, or soccer players themselves.
In Iran, soccer stadiums have been off-limits for women for the past four decades -- a ban that has divided Iran’s political establishment.
"One Step Forward" read the headline on the front page of the reformist Etemad daily, which featured a picture of a woman standing in the stadium holding Iranian flags. The headline on the front page of the pro-reform Sharq daily read, "Freedom Greets Iranian Women."
The sports dailies Iran-Varzeshi and Khabar-Varzeshi also featured images of the women on their front pages with headlines that read, "Women Reached Freedom" or "Women In Freedom."
Not everyone was happy, though.
Speaking on October 17, Iran's chief prosecutor, Mohammad Javad Montazeri, who is appointed by the powerful head of the hard-line judiciary, warned that action will be taken "if such moves continue."
"The presence of women in stadiums is harmful and there's no religious justification for it," Montazeri was quoted as saying by the semiofficial Mehr news agency.
"When a woman goes to the stadium and sees half-naked men, it's a sin," Montazeri said, while adding that some people were trying to push the boundaries.
He warned that there will be action against officials who want to allow women in stadiums.
"We will first give advice, then we will act," he said.
Conservatives have claimed that the ban on women attending major men's sporting events protects them from hearing crude language and seeing male athletes wearing revealing uniforms.
Women's rights activists have blasted the ban as an example of gender discrimination in the Islamic republic, where enforced Islamic laws deny women equal rights in divorce, child custody, and other areas.
Women have occasionally defied the ban and entered stadiums, sometimes dressed as men. On a few rare occasions, a small number of women, including female lawmakers and foreigners, have been allowed to attend sports events.
In recent years, an increasing number of women and men have called for the lifting of the ban.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani said earlier this year that "there should be no difference between men and women in Islam, and for that reason women should also be allowed to take part in sports events."
Iran won the friendly international game against Bolivia 2-1.