Iran women debate if biggest football attendance spells victory
Iranian reporter Hedieh Khatibi says she had to pinch herself when she finally got to enter Tehran's Azadi stadium late Saturday to cover a football match there for the first time.
"It was a dream come true at last, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," the journalist for sports newspaper Goal told AFP.
"At any moment I was worried someone would come and tell me to leave."
As Khatibi took her place in the press box, around a thousand female fans were also packed into the arena to watch local giant Persepolis FC battle it out in the Asian Champions League with Japan's Kashima Antlers.
The turnout was the biggest allowed to women in Iran in nearly four decades and, despite the home team losing on aggregate, little could dampen their spirits.
"When the women arrived, all the men stood up and applauded them," Khatibi said.
"It was so moving, 80,000 Iranian men were on their feet in respect and support of Iranian women."
Reformist papers in the Islamic republic hailed their attendance as a clear victory for women in the country.
Gianni Infantino, head of world football's governing body FIFA who attended the match, welcomed it as "a historic and festive day for football, a real breakthrough".
But not everyone appeared so convinced that it was a genuine triumph.
The game was not open to all women who wanted to attend.
Khatibi said that only "handpicked" people whose names appeared on pre-prepared lists were allowed into the stadium.
The reformist Sazandegi newspaper reported those selected included relatives of the home side as well as football and futsal players.
The women who were allowed in were seated in a separate stand and entered the stadium through a different route to the men.
Sahar Tolouee, a veteran journalist at the reformist Shargh newspaper, said she was offered the chance to attend, but refused to be on a list as she found it "insulting".
"To put you on a list like it's a gift when it's my right, and the right of all women to go to stadiums and watch football matches, is just unacceptable," the lifelong Persepolis FC fan told AFP.
"The doors of stadiums are still closed on Iranian women as a whole, they were just opened on a select few for one day."
Following the 1979 Islamic revolution, women were banned from attending men's football matches in Iran.
The first time women attended after the ban was on November 15, 2001 when some 20 Irish women were allowed to watch the Iran-Ireland World Cup qualifier.
Iranian women had to wait four more years, until June 8, 2005 when a few dozen were allowed to watch the Iran-Bahrain World Cup qualifier.
After the 2005 match, women were permitted to watch men's football matches in stadiums on extremely rare occasions and in very limited numbers.
The ban on women in stadiums has been frequently criticised from across the political spectrum.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, promised repeatedly to open up stadiums for women, during both his 2013 successful election bid and his 2017 reelection.
On October 16, for the first time, some 100 Iranian women were allowed into Azadi stadium for a friendly match between Iran and Bolivia.
The following day, Iran's prosecutor general warned there would be no repeat of women watching football inside stadiums, saying it would "lead to sin".
Clerics and conservatives in Iran argue that women must be protected from the masculine atmosphere at football games and the sight of semi-clad men.
Most conservative media and newspapers ignored the presence of women in the stadium in their coverage of the match.
On Twitter and other social media there was a wide-ranging debate among Iranians about whether Saturday's relaxing of the ban was positive or not.
Female member of parliament Parvaneh Salahshouri encapsulated the mood of those buoyed up by the move.
"Even though I don't favour their handpicked and minimal presence, I take the presence of women today as a good omen," she tweeted.
"I hope for a day when Iranian women can freely and without limitation watch football matches alongside their family."
And after experiencing the atmosphere of the stadium, sports writer Khatibi insisted this was "a step in the right direction".
"The door has been half-opened," she said. "We must all push to throw it wide open".