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Iranian women get a foothold in volleyball games

The ban on Iranian women allowed into stadiums to watch men play volleyball is slowly reversed.
Women hold t-shirts as they protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran, ahead of the FIVB Volleyball World League match between Poland and Iran, at Atlas Arena in Lodz, Poland June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Parham Ghobadi - RTS17HJ6

Unlike soccer games, which Iranian women have never been allowed to watch live, attending volleyball games had been within the reach of Iranian women until 2012. After a ban that lasted five years, Iran’s female sports fans purchased their tickets to the Iran-Belgium volleyball game in June, following an announcement by the Iran Volleyball Federation that women could also purchase tickets online for the first 10 minutes after going on sale.

In 2012, Iran banned women from watching men play volleyball in stadiums. The measure, although never ratified as a law, was taken following complaints by the hard-line group Ansar-e Hezbollah as well as criticisms by Shiite grand clerics.

Over the last five years, attempts have been made by Iranian women to return to volleyball stadiums. Women have held rallies in front of Tehran’s famous Azadi stadium. They have faced arrests, appealed to the International Volleyball Federation asking that gender discrimination be removed and, of course, remained optimistic about the promises made by the government of President Hassan Rouhani in regard to “citizens’ rights” and “gender equality.”

Until now, these efforts have only resulted in a limited and selective presence by women in stadiums. In 2015, women with foreign passports were allowed into the stadium for the Iran-US game. In 2016, some female employees of the Iran Volleyball Federation and the players’ female family members were allowed to watch the Iran-Serbia game.

Below is a summary of the developments of the female spectator ban in Iranian volleyball.

Sept. 9, 2012: Iran-Japan game

In September 2012, Iran competed against Asian archrival Japan in two games. Iran won the first game on Sept. 7 with more than 12,000 male and female spectators in attendance. A win in the second game meant Iran would, for the first time ever, take part in the FIVB Volleyball World League.

On the day of the second game, the Iran Volleyball Federation issued a statement announcing that male fans could watch the game but female spectators and female reporters would not be allowed into the stadium. Iran defeated Japan and qualified for the 2013 FIVB Volleyball World League. While male fans and reporters celebrated the historic victory, close to 1,000 Iranian women stood outside Azadi stadium.

Why were females banned for subsequent volleyball games? Images of female fans during the first Iran-Japan game sparked much criticism in hard-line media outlets. Yalasarat, the official media outlet for Ansar-e Hezbollah, reported that Iran’s victory “may have been sweeter than honey, but for the faithful seeing the recorded images of the women in the stadium made it more bitter than snake venom.” The ban on the entry of women to stadiums became a hot topic on social media.

Responding to the criticisms, Mahmoud Afshardoost, the secretary-general of the Iran Volleyball Federation, said the federation had received an “order” to prevent the entry of women at the second game. However, Afshardoost carefully avoided saying which entity had issued the order.

June 13, 2014: Iran-Brazil game

In June 2014, nearly two years after Iran banned women from watching men’s volleyball in stadiums and before Iran faced off against Brazil, Afshardoost seemed to soften toward the ban on female spectators. He said in an interview that the absence of women from stadiums was to the disadvantage of the volleyball federation and that the federation would issue entry permits for a number of female employees at the federation.

Yet the doors of the Azadi stadium once again remained closed to female fans when the big day arrived. A group of women rallied in protest when the Brazilian reporters and fans were entering the stadium.

In a June 16, 2014, Facebook post, Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, wrote that the issue had been discussed at the Cabinet meeting. Close to one year later, Molaverdi announced that the government had given up pursuing the matter due to clerical opposition.

“The retreat of the government then was a sign that the domestic pressures on the government was greater than we imagined,” Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian activist, told Al-Monitor. “But the story continues. This demand was also proposed after the 2017 [presidential] elections and Mrs. Molaverdi said in an interview that this issue has not been dismissed from the government’s agenda. In fact, the comprehensive nature of these objections and the promises that have been made make it impossible for the government not to follow up.”

June 20, 2014: Iran-Italy game

One week after Iran’s game with Brazil, a number of women who had again been banned from the stadium organized a rally that soon turned violent. Some female protesters were beaten and arrested. Among the protesters, there were also some male civil activists.

According to Ghavami who was arrested during the June 20 rally, the demand to be allowed into stadiums was one of the “most controversial” demands made by Iranian women in recent years. She said, “What raises hope about these protests is that these demands are comprehensive and no longer in the monopoly of the women’s movement. [As of 2014] there were both women and men who are pursuing this demand alongside each other.”

One hundred and thirty female rights activists wrote a letter to the World Volleyball Federation and protested the “gender discrimination” that was taking place. The federation, in turn, responded by promising to negotiate with the Iran Volleyball Federation to resolve the issue.

June 19, 2015: Iran-US game

The protests and gatherings in June 2015 were somewhat different. A few days before the start of the Iran-US game, Hezbollah issued a statement vowing a “bloody presence” on the day of the game in order to “deal with female attendance in stadiums."

Nearly 100 opposition protesters gathered in front of Iran’s Sports Ministry on June 17. They were particularly angered that Molaverdi had said one week prior that some female supporters would be allowed to watch the game, but security officials later contradicted her and denied that the attendance policies had changed. Despite promises by the federation to sell tickets to women, even Iranian female reporters were prevented from entering the stadium. However, some female fans who showed a non-Iranian passport were allowed in.

July 1, 2016: Iran-Serbia game

Once again, in July 2016, Iranian women found themselves unable to purchase tickets for the volleyball game. However, some female employees at the federation and the players’ family members were allowed to attend. This selective presence was soon followed by objections. The World Volleyball Federation, however, described it as a “first step” in resolving the issue.

According to Ghavami, this selective entry proved that the arguments posed in favor of banning women “lacked credibility.” He said, “If that environment is not suitable for women, there should be no difference between one or 100 women. In my opinion this theatrical entry is not meant to keep the World Volleyball Federation happy, but it is more to keep the domestic opposition happy. In fact, it seems the World Volleyball Federation has reached an agreement with Iran to gradually solve this issue.”

June 9, 2017: Iran-Belgium game

In June 2017, women protesting the ban received more media attention. The federation initially announced that women could purchase tickets online for 10 minutes after they went on sale. On the day of the game, 300 women were reported to have entered the stadium, 270 of whom were pre-selected and 30 whom had managed to purchase online tickets.

In Ghavami’s view, this was a positive step, but one that should not be focused on too much. He concluded, “Such a thing in soccer — where women were never allowed — can be a source of optimism, but in volleyball where a female presence was previously allowed but has now reached this stage, it is not. Rouhani must protect the promises of freedom that he made.”

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