Female fans cheer during second leg of AFC Champions League final football match between Iran's Persepolis and Japan's Kashima Antlers on Saturday (AFP)
Iran allowed hundreds of local women to attend the Asian Champions League final in Tehran on Saturday, Iranian news agencies reported, in a possible step towards ending their decades-old exclusion from top soccer matches in the country.
The semi-official news agency Tasnim said an unspecified number of women had entered Azadi Stadium to watch Persepolis seek to overturn a 2-0 first-leg deficit against Japan's Kashima Antlers and claim their first continental crown.
It said the women had joined in with chanting in support of Persepolis, Iran's best-supported club.
Iranian women and girls have not been allowed to attend men's sporting events in the country for much of the almost 40 years since the Islamic revolution, and have not been granted access to matches involving top clubs since 1981.
Still, in a rare move last month, about 100 women were allowed to watch a friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia.
Katayoun Khosrowyar, head coach of the U19 Iran National Women's Football Team, told Middle East Eye that "this is a step by step process, and in my opinion, it was a good step to take after 40 years. Slowly but surely the doors will open at Azadi Stadium for all women."
— SoodyQ (@SoodyQ) November 10, 2018
However, not everyone saw it as a step forward as Khosrowyar and her team faced some backlash from other women who said that they should not have gone if it was not open for all women.
Khosrowyar argues "it is a step by step process until the few who are against this movement are convinced. Women need to be happy for the women who finally went because it has already started a serious debate to open the door for all women."
In March, 35 women were detained for attending an exclusively male football match. The group of women tried to watch a game between the teams Esteqlal and Persepolis, but were removed from the stands before it began.
Although there is no legal ban on women attending sporting events in Iran, they are often refused entry. The unofficial policy has been upheld by religious conservatives in Iran since 1980.
Zeinab, who goes by the name Zeinab_perspolisi_ak8 on Instagram, was detained after she tried to attend a football match disguised as a man last September.
"We are just asking for this tiny bit of freedom that does not harm anyone."
Ballcaps, beards, and boldness: In Iran, women need to dress up as men just to watch a football game in a stadium pic.twitter.com/4xmDdhVeCM
— DW News (@dwnews) November 8, 2018
In January, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women entering male sporting events, ahead of the World Cup.
This leaves Iran as the only country in the world that still prevents women from entering sporting arenas.
As 80,000 people gathered at the Azadi to watch Saturday's game, Iranian social media reports said most of the women who had been let into the stadium were relatives of players or members of Iran's female football and futsal teams and football federation employees.
The ISNA news agency said fans around the stadium cheered as the women entered the stands set aside for them, which an official said had a capacity of 850 seats.
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Female fans from other countries have previously been permitted to attend games at the Azadi Stadium.
Parliament member Fatemeh Zolqadr said earlier that world soccer's governing body FIFA had demanded women be allowed to attend top-level games.
"This should be done to avoid any problems for the country's football," she was quoted as saying by the parliament news website ICANA.
Persepolis finished second in the AFC Champions League on Saturday as the second leg of the final ended in a 0-0 draw and with the 2-0 victory in the first leg, the trophy went to Japan. It was the first time that Kashima has won the Asian title, the Persian Football website said.