Women in attendance in Iran’s World Cup qualifier, first time since 1981


But under pressure from Federation Internationale de Football Association, soccer's governing body, Iranian authorities are allowing a few thousand women to watch a game Thursday at Tehran's Azadi Stadium - in a section separate from men.

Iranian woman Sahar Khodayari died last month after setting herself on fire while awaiting a court case following her March arrest for attempting to sneak into Azadi Stadium in Tehran wearing a disguise.

"Iran's decision to allow a token number of women into the stadium for tomorrow's football match is a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities meant to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Sahar Khodayari's tragic death", Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said in a statement.

While Thursday's game marks a step forward for Iranian women watching football matches, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the cap of 4,600 female fans "discriminatory, deceptive, and risky".

"FIFA will continue to work closely with them, to help ensure that the right thing is done, which is to allow all fans, irrespective of gender, to have the chance to go to the stadiums and enjoy a game of football".

The ban on women entering stadiums has previously been relaxed, with 100 Iranian women allowed to watch the men's national team friendly against Bolivia last October, and 500 women attending the AFC Champions League final match in Tehran between Persepolis and Japan's Kashima Antlers the following month. Women have been barred from attending football matches since 1981, shortly after the Iranian revolution brought conservative Islamic clerics to power in the country. "Because we had restrictions this is very appealing to us otherwise it's not something special", she said.

An unofficial ban on women entering stadiums had been in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but came to an end as women flooded into the stadium to watch their side's 14-0 triumph.

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State news agency IRNA earlier said that 3,500 women had purchased tickets ahead of the match.

An Iran fan gestures before their 2011 Asian Cup Group D match against United Arab Emirates at Qatar Sports Club stadium in Doha January 19, 2011.

According to an AFP journalist, between 4,000 to 4,500 women watched the game on Thursday while 6,000 men also attended.

In a statement on Thursday, FIFA feted the match as "a very positive step forward". Amnesty International called Thursday's decision "a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities meant to whitewash their image".

It said this week that it would "stand firm" in ensuring that women had access to all football matches in Iran. Nader Fathi, a businessman, said the presence of women could improve the atmosphere. "The global community, including world football's governing body, FIFA, must also ensure that woman are permitted to attend all matches".

"To our knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world that stops and punishes women seeking to enter football stadiums", it added.

"We're totally focused on making sure women can attend this match on 10 October and working just as pragmatically to ensure women also can attend local matches in league football - but it's about what follows as well". The issue is still deeply divisive. However, the country bowed to pressure from football's world governing body, FIFA, which had threatened to shut the the Iranian national team out of competitions if women were not allowed to attend worldwide matches.