Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian women were freely allowed Thursday to attend a World Cup qualifying soccer match in Tehran for the first time since 1981, reports the New York Times.

Why it matters: It marks a significant step in the push for increased gender equality in Iran and turned the team's throttling of Cambodia (final score: 14-0) into what the Times branded one of "the most consequential sporting events to be played in years."

  • Women have been protesting the ban since its inception — even disguising themselves as men to gain entry to matches.
  • FIFA had long remained silent on the issue, but contemplated banning Iran from the 2022 World Cup as a result — which would be a harsh sanction against a successful team.
  • The issue made waves internationally after a female fan, Sahar Khodayari, died after setting herself on fire earlier this year following a 6-month prison sentence for attending a soccer game.

The big picture: The policy change only applies to matches between Iran's national teams and other countries. It's still not clear if women will be allowed to attend domestic club matches.

  • Officials also capped the number of women allowed to attend Thursday's match at a few thousand, even though the stadium can seat 78,000 — resulting in a largely empty stadium with a packed section of female fans.

In photos:

The Iranian women were sectioned off from the rest of the stadium even though it was the only full section at the Iran-Cambodia match on Thursday. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Amin M. Jamali/Getty Images

Go deeper: Trump's anti-Iran strategy is facing its greatest test

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