By Simon Evans
LONDON (Reuters) - Iranian women will be allowed to watch the national soccer team play on Thursday for the first time in over 40 years, but campaigners are not convinced the match against Cambodia heralds a wider opening up of sports by the government.
Under pressure from world governing body FIFA, Iranian authorities have allocated seats to women in four sectors of Tehran's 78,000 capacity Azadi Stadium.
FIFA stepped up pressure on Iran to meet commitments allowing women to attend World Cup qualifiers following the death last month of Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire to protest against her arrest for trying to get into a match.
But a leading activist said FIFA should have pushed Iranian authorities harder and sooner to adhere to its anti-discrimination rules.
"The thing that happened to Sahar, FIFA were sort of responsible for that, because they knew this for years and they should've done it a lot sooner," said 'Sara', whose Open Stadiums group has campaigned for women's access for 15 years.
"Sahar had that tragedy but also so many others went through interrogations, they went to jail, just because they wanted to watch football."
Because protesters have faced repression in Iran, 'Sara' uses a pseudonym and asked for her voice to be distorted in a television interview with Reuters to protect her identity.
Around 3,000 women's' tickets for the World Cup qualifier were snapped up when they went on sale last week and FIFA had said it expected more to be released, but no additional seats had been made available by Wednesday.
Iranian women have been banned from stadiums hosting men's soccer matches since just after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Dubbed "Blue Girl" online for her favourite team Esteghlal's colours, Khodayari had feared being jailed for six months by the Islamic Revolutionary Court for trying to enter a stadium dressed as a man.
ACCESS FOR ALL
FIFA said in a statement to Reuters it had been "engaged very closely and on a regular basis" with the Iranian soccer authorities on the issue.
"FIFA's stance on the access of women to the stadiums in Iran has been firm and clear: women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran. For all football matches," it said.
At Iran's friendly against Syria in June, women were locked out of the Azadi Stadium. Some were detained by security forces.
In 2005 a group of women watched half a World Cup qualifier against Bahrain in Tehran and some were allowed to attend the Asian Champions League final in Tehran last November.
In a telephone interview, 'Sara' said the authorities' attitude to activists was unpredictable.
"We had years that we couldn't even talk about this issue, and we had years where we could demonstrate in front of the stadium, so we strategise based on our security and how we can keep ourselves safe and ... do the work."
'Sara' said Thursday's match was a step forward but that practical difficulties remained.
"Just women going to the stadium will break a taboo for the hardliners in Iran ... Their eyes are going to be (getting) used to seeing women inside the stadium," she said.
"But on the other hand, they basically killed the joy of going there. Like they released the tickets just so suddenly, then they finished it, you cannot really (take time to) decide if you want to go or don't want to go."
She said the number of tickets made available was inadequate, adding: "It shouldn't be like this. Men could easily ... buy a ticket whenever they want.
"Also when you have to be separated from your family, it's difficult because it should be a family sport ... Some of the mothers were asking how they'd manage to go there with their young sons," she said. "It could be managed a lot better."
While many Iranian women are sports fans, 'Sara' said some of those attending would be doing so to make a broader point.
"So many of these women that actually bought a ticket, many of them are not football fans, they just want to break this discrimination. For years (equal stadium access) has been a demand from the women's rights movement in Iran and as a part of exclusion from the public spaces.
"It's not just about football. People are doing this just to show that if you give capacity to us, we will use it."
FIFA President Gianni Infantino has urged Iran to open domestic league matches to women but authorities have so far only committed to make World Cup qualifiers inclusive.
"I think it would be a lot more logical if they would say all the national (team) matches. Our desire is all matches (including) league matches. But it seems like it is going to be only qualification matches," 'Sara' said.
She rejected arguments by officials that as well as religious strictures against women attending matches, they must be protected from male fans' bad language and behaviour.
"They just don't want to say 'yes' to women. That is a thing they are not comfortable with."
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Catherine Evans)