The recent strong performances by Iran's national volleyball team against world volleyball giants Brazil, Italy and Poland thrilled Iranians, but once again “half of the society” was deprived of its rights. The ban on Iranian women entering stadiums for the national team's games once again caused an uproar in society as police forces didn’t allow women to attend the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) World League games in Tehran.
Police dispersed women’s rights activists and female volleyball fans who were gathered in front of the entrance of Azadi Stadium when Iran played Italy in the first leg on June 20. According to eyewitness reports, some were beaten and detained.
“First slap, second slap, and a third one inconceivably I received in the face and, surrounded by 10 agents and plainclothes men and women, was beaten and pulled on the ground harshly to a police van,” Shargh daily reporter Fatemeh Jamalpou wrote on her Facebook page. Jamalpou went to the stadium to cover women protesting against the ban. “I closed my eyes for a second, saying should it be a dream, or a nightmare, but it was bitter reality that happened today in front of the western gate of Azadi Stadium before the volleyball game between Iran and Italy.” Jamalpour was kept in custody for six hours and then released.
The ban originally came after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran as mixed crowds enjoying games was deemed un-Islamic. Some clerics, including those in Iran, strongly object to free mixing between men and women. Gender segregation falls under Islamic jurisprudence and insists on separation of men and boys from women and girls in social settings.
"In the current conditions, the mixing of men and women in stadiums is not in the public interest," said Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam. "The stance taken by religious scholars and the supreme leader remains unchanged, and as the enforcer of law, we cannot allow women to enter stadiums."
At the beginning of the Iran-Italy game on June 20, authorities asked female journalists to leave the stadium. Hours later, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) announced that they would also be "banned from entering the stadium for the next three games in Tehran." This all occurred while the presence of female journalists and executives was authorized by the Iran Volleyball Federation.
During the June 13 Iran-Brazil game, Brazilian women with their passports in hand were allowed to enter to watch their national volleyball team playing Iran. This sparked criticism from some lawmakers, including Kamaledin Pirmoazen, who during the June 15 parliament open session referred to the Iranian constitution’s Article 3, saying, "Iranian women, like Brazilian [women], should benefit from volleyball games."
According to the cited article, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran has the duty of directing all its resources to “the abolition of all forms of undesirable discrimination and the provision of equitable opportunities for all, in both the material and intellectual spheres; and securing the multifarious rights of all citizens.”
Meanwhile, according to some reports, several Iranian women managed to sneak into the second leg of the Iran-Brazil game disguised as Brazilian fans.
Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi wrote on her Facebook page that during the cabinet meeting of June 16, she “objected to the prevention of women's presence in stadiums and declared the message of despair and frustration of [the] young generation [to the cabinet members].”
Later she was quoted by Mehr News as saying, “The president has called for further explanations, therefore, the minister of sports and I are charged with the probe.”
Well-known women's rights activist Jila Baniyaghub, a critic of the ban on women fans, was also present among the crowd in front of Azadi Stadium. In a Facebook post, she gave a brief account of the June 20 incidents, writing, “All roads to the stadium were full of anti-riot police and vehicles … they insulted, beat badly and detained some of the men [who] accompanied protesting women. It’s said more than 15 women have been detained.”
Over the past 35 years, women have been banned from attending almost all men’s football games. Only in 2005, at the end of Mohammad Khatami’s tenure, after women’s rights activists widely insisted on their right to attend the 2006 World Cup qualifying games played in Iran, a group of female fans who crowded in front of Azadi Stadium were allowed to enter at the start of the second half of the Iran-Bahrain game.
These activists had started a campaign called “Rusari Sefid-ha” which means "those wearing white scarves." The campaign aimed at “defending women’s right to attend stadiums freely.” Its motto was, “My share, half of Azadi.” ("Azadi" also means freedom.)
In the meantime, Iranian women were briefly allowed to attend volleyball games, but the ban was restored months after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power.
In 2013, during the World League volleyball qualifying games, when Iran hosted Japan, 2,000 out of 12,000 seats of Azadi Stadium were reserved for female fans to have the chance to cheer on the men’s volleyball team. The ban was re-imposed following this game, however.
There were sparse efforts by former authorities to grant women the right to enter stadiums. During 2006, former President Ahmadinejad ordered Iran's Physical Education Organization to plan “in a way that women are respected and are given the best places to watch national and important games.” Ahmadinejad wrote that women and families help bring “morality” and “chastity” to public venues. The move immediately sparked criticism from hard-line clerics and Qom seminaries.
Amid the recent ensuing clamor, some female lawmakers dismissed the idea of women spectators. Sakineh Omrani criticized the media for publishing false news, saying it’s not possible that they detain women only because they wanted to watch a volleyball game; they must have done something illegal. “They can watch sports matches at home, on television, if they are so eager. It’s forbidden by Islamic Sharia [to go to stadiums] because while doing sports, men are not fully dressed,” she said.
Meanwhile, female member of parliament Fatemeh Alia said, “Women’s duty is to raise children and take care of their husbands, not to watch volleyball games … the woman whose main concern is to go to [the] stadium and find a job and things like these would not be able to fulfill her duties.”
The remarks by these lawmakers caused a major uproar in social media.
Shahla Mirgalubayat, another female lawmaker, reacted differently when asked about women's rights to attend events in stadiums. “Women are half of the society and their demands should be respected, but in the framework of Islamic and legal standards,” Mirgalubayat said. “They can observe the existing concerns and attend stadiums.”
Women's right activists still are hopeful they would ultimately join other spectators inside stadiums. It’s been nearly a decade since they have started their fight to recover their “half of Azadi” and it seems that they will, again and again, buy tickets to national games and gather in front of Azadi Stadium — no matter how many times they are turned away.
They are keeping an eye on the government and on Hassan Rouhani’s efforts. As Jila Baniyaghub said, they would "continue to ask Rouhani to strive to keep his promise to defend women's rights."