HONG KONG: Campaigners in Iran remain hopeful that local women will be permitted to attend the Asian Champions League final in Tehran on Saturday, bringing an end to almost four decades of exclusion from top club matches in the country.
A crowd of more than 80,000 is expected at the Azadi Stadium as Persepolis, Iran's best-supported club, seek to overturn a 2-0 first leg deficit against Japan's Kashima Antlers and claim their first continental crown.
Iranian women and girls have not been allowed to attend any men's sporting events in the country for much of the 39 years since the Islamic revolution, and have not been granted access to matches involving top clubs since 1981.
However, in a rare move, about 100 women were allowed to watch a friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia on October 16.
Video posted on social media last week showed officials at the Azadi Stadium discussing possible locations for a "family stand", an initiative that would permit women to access the stadium.
While the video sparked hope among campaigners, there has been no subsequent official announcement.
Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted a senior stadium official, Hassan Karimi, as saying an area with a capacity of 850 seats had been set aside for women but that the stadium had no role in selling tickets to women.
The semi-official ISNA news agency said a number of female reporters holding the necessary accreditations had been allowed to enter the stadium on Saturday.
"It has been silent for days, the only thing we saw publicly was a short video from the sports ministry inside the Azadi Stadium and they were talking about a female section," a spokesperson for the Open Stadiums campaign group told Reuters by e-mail on condition of anonymity.
"It has been our dream for decades. We are always excluded from public happiness and excitement. We have protested and fought for it. Basically, it's women's first demand."
Open Stadiums have been campaigning for access to venues for women in Iran and representatives of the organisation met with FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura this week to hand over a petition signed by more than 200,000 people.
Samoura said FIFA would work with Iran to end the long-running ban on women attending matches but offered no insight as to when a breakthrough could be expected, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on Thursday.
Iranian authorities could not be reached by Reuters for comment during the Iranian weekend on Friday.
Female fans from other countries have previously been permitted to attend games at the Azadi Stadium, including Syrian women for a World Cup qualifier in September last year.
The restrictions on local women that were relaxed for the match against Bolivia were quickly reinstated under pressure from hardliners within the government.
"You can't imagine how humiliating it is," the spokesperson, who requested anonymity under fear of arrest, said.
"Last year, in front of our eyes Syrian women went inside and it's so sad how we don't have any rights in our own country."
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has also held talks with Iranian soccer authorities in an attempt to find a solution to the long-running issue.
"FIFA added human rights to their statutes and the AFC did the same, so we're in a new world now where human rights have been adopted as part of the statutory framework within which we work and that must make a difference when decisions like these are made," Moya Dodd, chair of the AFC's women's football committee, told Reuters.
"This is a massive game. It's a showcase match and for that to also be a landmark date when women would be able to see the game live in the stadium would be a terrific thing for Asian football to demonstrate progress, and for women who have waited so many decades to gain access to club matches there."
(Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; editing by Nick Mulvenney, John O'Brien and Kirsten Donovan)