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Iran women’s activist vows to step up protest after Russia World Cup block

By Thomson Reuters Foundation - Jun 22,2018 - Last updated at Jun 22,2018

Fans gather for a public viewing event at Azadi Stadium in Tehran, Iran, on Wednesday to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Group B match between Iran and Spain (Anadolu Agency photo)

BEIRUT — An Iranian activist vowed to step up her campaign for her country to end its ban on women attending stadium games on Thursday, a day after she was blocked from a World Cup match in Russia and stripped of a banner.

Maryam Qashqaei Shojaei, who made international headlines with an earlier demonstration, said security officials had stopped her entering the stadium in Kazan with the banner she planned to raise during the game between Iran and Spain.

"After what happened last night, it made me want to fight more," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview on Thursday.

"I am going to... fight harder and to try my best to change this rule."

Iran has long barred women from attending male football matches and other sports fixtures, partly to protect them from hearing fans swear. 

But Shojaei said authorities in the Islamic republic had agreed late on Wednesday to open Tehran's Azadi Stadium to women, allowing families to watch a live screening of the match. Selfies taken by women fans were shared on social media. 

"I am so, so glad that my fellow Iranian women were able to be in that atmosphere, watching a game even if it wasn't live," she said.

Shojaei, who had obtained approval for her planned protest, said she eventually went into the stadium to watch the second half of the match after more than two hours speaking to security officials who told her they had put her banner in the bin. 

World football's governing body FIFA said the incident was due to "a misunderstanding by the local police officers" which it had now addressed.

"The banners are considered by FIFA to express a social appeal as opposed to a political slogan and were therefore not prohibited under the relevant regulations," it said in an e-mailed statement.

Shojaei made headlines during Iran's first match against Morocco on Friday when she raised a banner in the St Petersburg stadium with the slogan: "Support Iranian women to attend stadiums #NoBan4Women". 

Large numbers of Iranian women, who would be barred from watching live matches in their home country, have travelled to Russia, plastering social media with photos of themselves cheering on their team.

"My banner is just a piece of cloth you can ignore, but you can't ignore the thousands of Iranian women [who] came to be at the World Cup," Shojaei said. 

Ahead of the tournament — which is taking place in 11 cities and runs until July 15 — Shojaei launched an online petition urging FIFA President Gianni Infantino to pressure Iran to end the ban.

Infantino said in May that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had told him there were plans to allow women to attend matches soon.

In April, female football fans donned fake beards and wigs to attend a major game in Tehran's Azadi Stadium.

The Iranian group OpenStadiums, which is campaigning for women to be allowed to attend sports fixtures, said some women were arrested near the stadium in March during the Esteghlal-Persepolis match.

Iran's team captain Masoud Shojaei said on Tuesday the World Cup was the wrong place to discuss the issue, although he has previously backed lifting the ban, according to Iranian media reports.

Saudi Arabia last year overturned a ban on women watching sporting events.

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