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Darya Safai protesting Iran’s ban on women watching volleyball matches, at the Maracanazinho stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016. (KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)


Iranian women should not face arrest and threats for watching volleyball

By Solmaz Sharif on August 17, 2016

The Rio Olympics are underway and sports fans around the world are waking up early, staying up late, gathering around TV sets or furtively streaming the competitions online from work computers. Others are fortunate to witness records broken and precedents set live from the stands and bleachers — perhaps none so noticeably as Darya Safai, an Iranian woman protesting Iran’s ban on women watching volleyball matches. In my home country of Iran,  women have bravely paved their paths in politics, science and the arts — yet they are still striving for the right to be part of key public spaces: stadiums (volleyball and soccer, among others.)

In May, a 15-year-old Iranian girl defied the rules and dressed up as a boy to gain entrance into Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium in Tehran for the Finale of Iran’s Premier League soccer season — she was later threatened with arrest and even death.  In July, women in Iran were promised they could buy tickets and attend the International Volleyball Federation’s World League Matches, but as soon as the online sale commenced, a “sold out” alert appeared.

The International Olympic Committee under President Thomas Bach has made “gender equality” one of its central pillars mandating access to sport for all as both players and spectators. At the Rio Olympics, Iranian women were able to watch their national men’s team — which for many only put a spotlight on the ban at home in Iran.

A campaign by Iranian women challenges the International Volleyball Federation, also known as the FIVB, which has so far tolerated stadiums where the crowded rows of spectators exclude half the population. It is crucial that the Federation ensures Iranian women do not have to go to great lengths and risk their safety to simply watch.

The struggle by women against discrimination in Iran takes place on many key fronts, including divorce, custody rights and freedom of speech. However, the ability for women to be at stadiums is symbolic of their right to occupy public spaces, and to take part in and celebrate key moments in the life of the country.

Sports inspired me to confront society and in many cases, the authorities. To deny women the right to such a socially influential part of society is an offense that the FIVB can help resolve.

In February of this year, the FIVB awarded Iran the right to host the first-ever International Beach Volleyball Tournament on Kish Island. Before the games, the FIVB reassured critics that Iran would allow “anyone, regardless of gender” to attend the games — a requirement in the FIVB’s own constitution, which guarantees gender equality. Iranian women traveled across the country to finally participate in the national love of volleyball.

For Iranian women this was not simply a sports event; it was the first opportunity for them to sit in the stadiums they have been banned from for the past four years. This could have been a historic moment for women to regain their rights, and a possibility to open the door to other public spaces.

Instead, Iranian women’s hopes were dashed. When female fans attempted to enter the stadium, they were brusquely turned away from the FIVB’s tournament, and told that entry for them was “forbidden.”

But Iranian women are determined and resourceful, so when some were unsuccessful in getting admitted to the games, they went to a neighboring café and cheered from the rooftop, posting images to social media, while complaining about the FIVB’s betrayal of gender equality.

When the FIVB’s failure to guarantee access for women was exposed in the media, the FIVB shamefully called the whole debacle a “misunderstanding.”

This was no misunderstanding. The FIVB knows that Iranian women have been arrested and threatened before for watching volleyball. In the summer of 2014, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian dual citizen was arrested for attempting to enter Azadi Stadium to watch a volleyball game between Iran and Italy. Ghavami was then accused of “propaganda against the state” and sentenced to a year in prison. She was released after six months, but the chilling message went out that women are not welcome at FIVB tournaments.

The FIVB will soon make an announcement about whether Iran wins the right to host another series of international tournaments in 2017, both men’s beach volleyball and volleyball.  If the FIVB is to continue to award Iran the opportunity to host international events, it must demand that—as for volleyball matches in Brazil, Germany, Argentina, or Turkey—women be allowed to watch. It is the FIVB’s duty as an international organization not to compromise on the equality of access to the games, not to side with hardliners excluding women, and not to  condone an ugly double standard for Iran’s women.

The FIVB can and should press for the reversal of the ban on Iranian women watching volleyball in stadiums—and if the ban is not lifted, the FIVB should take its international tournament to a country that plays by the rules.

Solmaz Sharif founded Shirzanan, the first magazine dedicated to covering women’s athletics in Iran. She is also the co-founder of Shirzanan — meaning “female heroes” in Persian — a Muslim women and sports advocacy group.


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