Award-winning photojournalist among 'Liberations Girls' detained for entering Iranian football stadium disguised as men

Award-winning photojournalist among 'Liberations Girls' detained for entering Iranian football stadium disguised as men
3 min read
18 August, 2019
Iran has placed a ban on women watching public sporting events since the 1979 revolution, but activists have long fought to see it overturned.
'The Liberation Girls' are known for disguising themselves as men to watch football [Twitter]
An award-winning photojournalist is among six women detained in Iran for sneaking into a football match disguised as a man.

Women in the Islamic republic have long campaigned against a ban on women spectators in football stadiums, with activists frequently disguising themselves in order to get a front row seat for the beautiful game.

Human Rights Watch has urged the release of six women detained earlier this week, alleged to have dressed as men in order to circumvent the ban. The group had previously used the same disguises to gain access to a February match that saw their favourite team, Persepolis, win Iran's super league.

Among the women are award-winning photojournalists Forough Alaei and Zahra Khoshnavaz, a prominent activist who has campaigned against the ban on women and girls attending public sporting events.

Alaei won the prestigious World Press Photo award earlier this year for her work documenting passionate women football fans trying to watch live football matches in Iran, The Telegraph reported.

One of the prize-winning images shows a woman having a fake beard applied. In another, she is shown surrounded by male football fans in a stadium.

Alaei, Khosnavaz, and four others - locally known as "The Liberation Girls" - have been transferred to the notorious Qarchak prison in Tehran's suburbs, Iranian media reported.

Activists have previously reported poor hygiene and safety conditions at the prison, according to HRW, which has called for the women's immediate release.

"Iranian women should not be spending a second in prison because authorities accuse them of peacefully attempting to defy a ridiculous ban that denies women and girls equal rights to attend a football match," Minky Worden, Director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Four of the women, including Alaei and Khoshnavaz, were reportedly released on bail on Saturday.

While the ban has occasionally been lifted for select groups of women, the vast majority of female fans are barred from stadiums as Iranian clerics regard watching men playing football in shorts as "promiscuity". 

Iranian authorities have also argued that women must be "protected" from the vulgar swearing uttered by male fans.

"The attendance of women at football stadiums would only create social ills and has no religious justification as it leads to sinful acts. We will deal with full force against those who want to break this rule", Public Prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri told Mehr news agency.

FIFA threatens sanctions

The football world governing body FIFA in June threatened Iran with sanctions if it refused to take concrete steps towards easing the restrictions in place since 1979.

FIFA has said that it was informed by Iran in July that the country is taking steps to allow women to attend World Cup qualifying matches. The organising body has set a deadline of October 10, the date of Iran's first qualifier against Cambodia.

"FIFA has clear rules that require members to allow women to attend matches and to protect press freedom, yet FIFA has not taken meaningful action to enforce its own regulations," Worden said. "The latest detentions show that much stronger action than a verbal warning is needed from FIFA and that it needs to impose sanctions for such blatant, long-standing gender discrimination."

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