Thousands of Iranian women were allowed to attend a professional soccer game for the first time in 40 years during the country’s World Cup qualifier against Cambodia on Thursday.
The country set aside 3,500 tickets for women to attend the game in Tehran’s Azadi stadium, and an additional 1,100 were released after the initial lot sold out in about an hour.
Iran began banning women from attending soccer game sin sports stadiums shortly after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and recently expanded the ban to include other sporting events such as volleyball and basketball as those sports have become more popular in the country.
Human rights groups have long opposed the practice and recently soccer’s international governing body, FIFA, presented the possibility of barring Iran from qualifying matches for the 2022 World Cup if it continued to ban women from attending.
“This is a very positive step forward and one which FIFA and especially Iranian girls and women have been eagerly waiting for,” FIFA President Gianni Infantino said. “The passion, joy and enthusiasm they showed today was remarkable to see and encourages us even more to continue the path we have started. History teaches us that progress comes in stages and this is just the beginning of a journey.”
Human Rights Watch described the capping the number of women allowed to attend the game at 4,600 as “discriminatory, deceptive and dangerous.”
“The effective 5 percent quota on seats for women contravenes FIFA’s constitution, statues and its human rights policy,” the organization said. “Article 4 of its statutes states that discrimination against women ‘is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion’ of the FIFA member.”
In addition to capping the number of tickets sold to women, all of the women who attended Thursday’s game were seated in the same section and separated from the men in attendance by metal fencing, The New York Times reported.
Women without tickets were told they would not be allowed inside the arena, although it was mostly empty outside of the section in which the 4,600 women were seated.
FIFA stated its stance was that women must be allowed into soccer stadiums in Iran for all soccer matches.