Iranian women were banned from soccer stadiums for 40 years; Maryam Shojaei fought to fix that

Women were banned from attending men's soccer games in Iran for 40 years. Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award winner Maryam Shojaei, not seen in photo, fought to change that. Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Growing up, Maryam Shojaei's mother told her daughter stories of attending soccer matches in Iran. Before 1979, everybody -- man or woman -- was allowed inside the stadium. That changed when the conservative government imposed an unwritten rule to exclude women from attending men's soccer matches because of "profane language" and "half-naked men" in the stadiums. Since 2014, Maryam Shojaei, whose brother is Masoud Shojaei, the captain of the Iranian men's team, has fought for women's right to enter soccer stadiums, finding the rule unconscionable.

I was 4 when the war between Iran and Iraq [1980-88] started. On the first day of the war, our home was destroyed. None of us were home. Otherwise, all of us would be dead. That's probably why I speak out when I see something unfair -- like with the violation of basic women's rights and peace.

The rule [to ban women from entering soccer stadiums] didn't exist before 1979; that shows the randomness of it all. Many Iranians -- half of the population women -- were interested in [attending soccer matches] and were not allowed to go. I wanted to take advantage of the network that I had. My main focus was on awareness. I wanted to question the unfair practice.

In [2006], my friend Jafar Panahi, who is a director, made a movie called "Offside." The film created awareness, not only in Iran but in the world. In the movie, he showed what a stupid rule this is, especially because it has only existed for [40] years. Around the time the scripted movie was released, there was a movement called the White Scarves (that started in 2005). It was an amazing movement. Women were not allowed to take a banner in front of the stadium. So they stood in front of the stadium. You know that hijab is mandatory here, right? And whatever they wanted to say, they wrote it on their white scarves, and they wrapped it around their head. [The authorities] could remove their banners, but they couldn't remove their scarves. "Half of the Azadi Stadium -- the main stadium in Iran -- is my right" was a quote I remember seeing on a scarf. It was brilliant. I learned from them.

In 2014, I began to voice my opinion slowly. It became clear after a while that there wouldn't be any change within Iran. And I took my activism abroad -- I went to matches all over the world, held banners, got the attention of the media and the federation. I recognized it had to be a global movement. Slowly, when they realized I am not going anywhere, the focus became about how to change this unwritten rule in Iran.

Even some of my male friends said it's not a good idea: because the atmosphere in stadiums is so harsh for women, because there is physical violence, there are so many vulgar things being said. They say that even if the stadium is open for women today, they won't take their wives and mothers there because they know what kind of atmosphere exists there. My response to that always is, "This can happen on the streets, this can happen everywhere," and that the atmosphere is that way because it's a one-gender environment. It's like a locker room, and what about young boys?

The one thing that sometimes discouraged me was when other people who were able to go and watch thought that fighting for women's rights to be allowed inside a stadium is not an important thing to do. People say we have more important problems to solve and have our economy to take care of. When people turn a blind eye to such a very basic right, that discourages me. It's not a life-and-death issue, going to a stadium, but if you're not able to change a rule how will we change as a society? I get discouraged when I see people not even be willing to participate in small change -- a change that's not even risky for them.

It wasn't risky to hold a banner.

Then, last year, after FIFA's pressure, we started to see changes. Women were allowed inside the stadium for the World Cup qualifier match. These changes -- toward the stadium ban it was a big step, but toward equality it is a small step. It wasn't the biggest problem for Iranian women. We have other problems that need to be solved. But still, it was a big step because that was the first victory. I was proud of myself and so many Iranian women who fought the stadium ban.

I see the fight to eliminate the stadium ban as a representation of changes that could and would happen in the community, in the world. After many years of fighting, they let Iranian women who have foreign children have [Iranian] documents. [Iranian women with foreign husbands can now pass Iranian citizenship to their children. Previously, Iran granted automatic citizenship to Iranian men's children and spouses but did not do the same for Iranian women's children and spouses.] It happened in October 2019. And that was a long way for so many feminists fighting for that issue.

I was so saddened by the news [of Iranian activist Blue Girl's death in 2019], especially because I was in New York getting ready to receive an award that night. [Sahar Khodayari, also known as Blue Girl, set herself on fire in 2019 upon learning she could spend six months in prison for trying to enter a public stadium to watch a soccer game.] When I heard the news, I couldn't stop crying. I am going to receive this award, and she is dead now. This amazing girl brought awareness to [the Iranian stadium ban for women], and I am so sad that this happened. She wanted to be seen, and her death was a big message. Her death emphasized all the issues and put more pressure.

This journey has taught me how interconnected we are. I had the chance to meet amazing people in Australia, Canada, in the States. Women who were able to help and who never gave up. Because when I started [this movement], people thought that I was crazy. In Farsi, we say that when we put water in a bowl and try to smash the water, nothing will come out of that. They thought that I was doing something useless. As Hafez, the Iranian poet, said nearly 700 years ago, "We always sit and wait for an invisible hand to come and do everything for us." Through this, I learned not to give up and understood that every move matters.

I am saddened by the news of Iranian athletes [like Kimia Alizadeh, Alireza Firouzja and Saeid Mollaei] moving to other countries. These are the country's assets, the young people who could be here and represent our country. They have to leave because of the pressure they're facing here. Why should they play with another flag? If they had peace of mind, they would stay here -- this is very sad that when a woman plays here, she has to fix her scarf. Imagine the pressure athletes go through to perform, and now imagine how much pressure they're in to consider all these extraneous things. When they go and play, playing is not the only concern they have.

I am very touched with everything that happened after George Floyd's death. Public awareness is essential. Black rights are the same as anybody else's rights, but it's the public that needs to know before changes happen at the government level. Even if something changes at the top, people will suffer if they don't believe or are not aware of their rights. In this case, if black people are not aware of their rights, and if white people are not aware of other minorities' rights, that won't result in meaningful, everyday changes. That's why education is always the answer. If we are looking for a change, this is the time. Social media -- 7 billion people from every single corner of this planet watched that video of that man being brutally killed and were heartbroken. Now is the time to bring change.

About 10 months ago, an Iranian stadium was packed -- of course all with men. I was very moved by what they said in [Azeri]. One half of the stadium said, "We are missing our Iranian women," and the other half responded by saying, "It's their right." I was so moved. For Iranian men and for other countries where women are treated as second-class citizens, the men could take advantage of the privileges they have. But in this case, they were complaining about inequality and underscoring women's rights, which was very precious to me. When the oppressors take a stand for the oppressed, it's more powerful.

At this point, my focus is in education. I was in Afghanistan for two months, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. There is a new way of Persian literacy, and I was in Afghanistan to introduce the method. My next goal is to teach people to read and write. I am excited to win an ESPYS Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award; it shows that ordinary people can bring meaningful change. I aim to reach ordinary people, and visibility is a step in the right direction. One thing that I am very happy that I did, and as did many activists before me, was questioning the bad. We should all believe in basic rights.

This year, the Sports Humanitarian Awards will combine with the 2020 ESPYS. The show airs on June 21 on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.