In Iran, it’s not only hooligans who get refused entry to sporting events. On Friday November 11, a group of men were turned away when they tried to watch a game of female futsal in the town of Noshahr. They were demonstrating against a ban on men watching women at sporting events, in the first protest of its kind in Iran.

The men had come to watch a futsal match [Editor’s note: Futsal is a variant of football played on a smaller field and often indoors] between the local team, Amir Noshahr, and Esteghlal Sâri. But when they arrived at the gymnasium, they were turned away at the entrance. Instead of being put off, the men began singing chants normally heard in football stadiums and chanting the name of the local women’s futsal team. They stayed there until the end of the game, which ultimately ended in a draw. So far, there have been no indications that the men were arrested for trying to watch the game.

This all-male show of support for Amir Noshahr failed to provoke a response from the team. That’s hardly surprising, given how sensitive the subject is in Iran. Iranian media outlets have showcased several recent examples of women trying to gain access to stadiums hosting male sporting events. This, however, is the first time that men have publicly held a protest against the rules that bar them from attending women’s sporting events.

“Neither my dad, my brother nor my boyfriend have ever seen me play, either on television or at a stadium”

Farnoush (not her real name) is a professional futsal player for Amir Noshahr.

This is the first time that a group of men have come to cheer us on. They’re usually happy to just follow the results. It was heartwarming to see, and I hope it happens again. When we play we have to wear a veil that covers us up from head to toe, in accordance with Islamic law. So I don’t really understand why men aren’t allowed to attend our games. Neither my dad, my brother nor my boyfriend have ever seen me play, either on television or at a stadium. It’s crazy!

Female futsal is expanding rapidly in Iran. The country won the Asian championships in September 2015 against Japan. In the top league, the women play at a very high level [Editor’s note: 14 teams take part in the top league].

“Many teams in the top division can’t afford to pay their players”

But despite the enormous success, no one invests in female futsal. Stadiums don’t get filled up because men aren’t allowed to watch, and not many women like watching sporting events. Most women in Iran don’t really appreciate sport enough to watch it.

Television channels don’t have the right to broadcast matches, so financially it makes little sense for sponsors to invest in female futsal. They’d have zero visibility. Most of the teams are struggling financially. They can’t even afford to pay their female players. All they can afford to do is pay back their expenses.

Iran has seen more and more women arrested over the last few years for protesting against the ban on them attending male sporting events. Ghoncheh Ghavami is perhaps the most well-known of them. She tried to barge her way into a male volleyball match between Iran and Italy along with a group of women back in the summer of 2014. Although the other women were immediately released, she spent 129 days behind bars.