Saudi women, wearing their World Cup abayas, or dresses, with the colors of the flags of countries taking part in the World Cup 2010, walk through a shopping mall in Jeddah on June 18. Photo: AFP/Amer Hilabi

High up in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on June 14, Vladimir Putin shrugged apologetically. The Russian president then reached out to shake the hand of Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman after the Russian national team thrashed their Middle Eastern opponents 5-0 in the opening game of the football World Cup.

At least the Saudi fans enjoyed themselves in the build-up on a sunny mid-June afternoon, as their team played on one of the biggest sporting stages in the world for the first time since 2006. Two days later, regional rivals Iran kicked off with a dramatic 1-0 victory over Morocco in Saint Petersburg to spark wild post-match celebrations, in contrast with those of their regional rivals.

Saudi Arabia fans of all stripes at the World Cup in Russia. Photo: John Duerden/Asia Times

Yet as the 10,000 or so Iranian fans danced into the early hours, the female supporters may have been a little jealous of their Saudi counterparts. When the World Cup is over, Iranian women will be forced to get their domestic football fix on television — while those in Saudi Arabia can now go to the stadium.

Back in 2006, when Saudi Arabia last appeared on the global stage, women were forced to watch at home. That changed earlier this year in the Saudi Pro League, the country’s highest level of domestic football. Under the orders of the Crown Prince, three teams opened their arenas to female fans and, when the necessary work has been finished (such as building toilets and prayer rooms), women should be able to go and watch all teams in the league as the new season starts in August.

“I haven’t been yet but I will,” Mana Ahmed, a Saudi Arabian fan, told Asia Times outside the Luzhniki Stadium. “It is exciting to be here and to see my first football game, I hope that I can see the players when I go home too. I have watched on television sometimes when my male family members have gone to the game.”

Driving cars, watching football… what next. Saudi Arabia fans at the World Cup in Russia. Photo: John Duerden/Asia Times

There is more. Bin Salman has also ruled that women can drive cars alone as part of a series of apparent reforms aimed at opening up the country. Ahmed, from the eastern region near the border with Bahrain, known for its passion for football, hopes the reforms will be permanent. “Things are changing and they are changing for the better. I hope this continues and not only in regards to watching football,” he said.

Women are regularly arrested when trying to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, but there are signs that the situation may change

While the situation may be better on the pitch for Iran, the country’s millions of female football fans are still frustrated at not being allowed to see their heroes in the flesh in their homelands.

“It is ridiculous that we have to come to another country and watch our players represent us to the world,” said one fan, unwilling to be named, in Saint Petersburg. “Even Saudi Arabia has changed and we need to do also. Iran is the most passionate football country in our region, yet still half the people are banned to watch live games.”

Women are regularly arrested when trying to enter Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, but there are signs that the situation may change. The rule that women cannot watch all-male sporting events was introduced in 1980, a year after the Islamic Revolution, but last year, the ban was lifted in volleyball.

Early June, there was excitement as the Iranian government said that women would be allowed to watch a live screening of World Cup games at the Azadi Stadium. That decision was reversed two days before the game, as were other open-air events: the government has been wary in the past of large crowds gathering to watch football games. This prompted fans of both genders and all ages to flock to cinemas to watch their team record only a second-ever win at the World Cup.

“There is no justification really and everyone knows,” the fan added. “They are just worried that it will lead to something else and we will start asking for more and more but we just want to watch football.”

She senses that the mood in the country is changing. “We are getting more support from men and some players have spoken out. The World Cup is not just a great chance to show the world Iranian football, it is a chance to show the Iranian government that women should be part of football too; it belongs to us also.”

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