Ahead of women's World Cup, female fans struggle in Middle East

Two weeks ahead of a potentially game-changing women's World Cup, football remains completely male-dominated in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where female fans are still battling for a level playing field.

Women fans face obstacles in many parts of the region where rival powers Iran and Saudi Arabia have traditionally enforced rules banning women from entering stadiums.

No countries from the region will be among the 24 teams taking part in the tournament in France from June 7, but at least there are signs of flexibility in the region toward a sport igniting more and more female interest across the globe.

In Iran, rules have been relaxed since the 1979 Islamic revolution and women are selectively allowed to attend some matches.

But the fact that a ban has yet to be officially lifted indicates there is still disagreement over the issue among senior figures in the Islamic republic.

Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia allowed women into a football stadium for the first time in January 2018 for a regular domestic football league match.

The move was part of reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that included allowing women to drive and take part in other sporting and artistic events.

However, the kingdom's strict brand of Islam still mandates separation of the sexes in public and women football fans are only admitted to special sections of stadiums and must wear full Islamic veils.

Even so 15,000 women, penned in special sections, were among the 62,000 fans who attended the Italian Super Cup between Juventus and AC Milan played in Jeddah in January.

- Exceptions -

Rules banning women from football games in Iran were introduced by religious leaders concerned about public morals and the risk to women of unwanted attention from men in the crush to enter and leave the stadiums.

Exceptions have been made: a handful of Irish women became the first females permitted to watch a match in Islamic Iran when they were allowed to attend a 2001 World Cup qualifier between a visiting Ireland team and the hosts.

More recently 850 Iranian women were allowed to attend the Asian Champions league final between Iran's Persepolis FC and Kashima Antlers of Japan.

The women had to show up two hours ahead of kick-off, entering well before the men and going to their own separate section of the stadium.

A limited number of women were also permitted to watch Iran's men's games in the 2018 World Cup on a giant screen erected in the capital, Tehran.

However, as women's football is expected to draw huge attendances at the World Cup in France, Iranian women still face challenges with their attendance at matches remaining controversial.

After a handful of women were allowed to watch a match between Iran and Bolivia in October, Iran's prosecutor general Mohammad Javad Montazeri said permitting women to watch men in shorts was "a sin".

Apart from Saudi Arabia and Iran, no other country in the region actively bans women from attending football matches but female football followers are generally in a minority.

Nevertheless, Tunisia has actively encouraged women fans by offering them free tickets to international matches while more Moroccan women are also watching the sport alongside men.

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