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Iran continues to get away with discriminatory policy towards female spectators

Nancy Gillen

The Volleyball Boys’ Under-19 World Championship seems like a fairly ubiquitous event but it was in the spotlight this week.

Scrutiny came after the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) awarded the next edition of the competition, scheduled to take place in 2021, to Iran.

This is despite the continued obstacles facing Iranian women from attending volleyball matches in the country. The ban on female spectators dates back to 2012, when Iran’s Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry extended an existing policy on football matches to cover volleyball.

Since then, the policy has eased somewhat. Iranian authorities began to allow female spectators into volleyball matches in 2017, but only a limited number of pre-vetted women. Discrimination is still rife, something which the FIVB acknowledged in a statement to insidethegames.

Despite claiming the hosting of volleyball events could “play an important role in contributing to positive change in Iran and promoting the FIVB’s values of inclusivity and gender equality” and pledging a 100 per cent commitment to ensuring women could attend the Boys’ Under-19 World Championship, the governing body said there was “still some way to go” in ending gender discrimination in volleyball in Iran.

Such an admission is also accepting that Iran flagrantly breaches the FIVB’s own commitment to “inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis all around the world.” The FIVB does not seem to realise this, however, and still considers it appropriate to award the Boys’ Under-19 World Championship to a country which does not allow women to participate in sport on an equal basis. 

Iranian women have faced obstacles attending volleyball matches in the country since 2012 ©Getty ImagesIranian women have faced obstacles attending volleyball matches in the country since 2012 ©Getty Images

In the interest of fairness, the FIVB did take a stand against the discriminatory policy against women in 2015. The governing body announced it would not award Iran hosting rights to any FIVB controlled events while women were banned from sporting events in the country. 

What is interesting, however, is that the FIVB took a more hard-line stance after Iran’s ban on women attending volleyball matches gained widespread international attention. In 2014, British-Iranian woman Ghoncheh Ghavami was detained in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison for five months after attending a men’s volleyball match. She was eventually released on bail, before her charges were dropped in 2015.

Her dual nationality meant British authorities were involved in her case, and the Western media became aware of the extent of Iran’s draconian policy against women attending sporting events. The FIVB had no choice but to show some kind of resistance to Iran. This seems to have faded as scrutiny of the discriminatory policy has become less prominent.

A similar situation arose last year, this time regarding the ban on women entering football matches in Iran. Again, a horrific incident propelled the situation into the limelight. Twenty-nine-year old Sahar Khodayari had been arrested in March 2019 after she disguised herself as a man and tried to sneak into a match between Iranian team Esteghlal and Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates at the Azadi Stadium.

She was released pending a court case, but upon returning to Ershad Courthouse to collect her phone in September 2019, Khodayari learned that she could be tried by a revolutionary court and put in prison for six months. In despair, she set herself on fire, dying from her injuries a week later.

Women were allowed into Iran's football match against Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in October 2019, breaking a 40-year ban ©Getty ImagesWomen were allowed into Iran’s football match against Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in October 2019, breaking a 40-year ban ©Getty Images

The story spread on social media, and accounts such as Open Stadium shone a light on the obstacles facing Iranian women attending sporting events. FIFA sprung to action, forcing the hand of the Iranian Football Federation to allow women into the 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran in October 2019. It marked a break in the 40-year-ban on Iranian women entering football stadiums, put in place during the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

It was undeniably a momentous occasion but was somewhat undermined by there being only a limited amount of tickets available to women, a lack of accreditation for female journalists and the presence of a prison-like enclosure for female spectators.  

At the time, Amnesty International warned the relaxation of the ban was a “cynical publicity stunt”, and this appears to be the case. The match against Cambodia was just over a year ago, and since then, there does not seem to have been another game which has permitted women as spectators. In addition, there does not seem to have been any work carried out to ensure female fans can attend domestic competitions such as the Persian Gulf Pro League.

Obviously, it is hard to know what would have happened this year if COVID-19 had not made attending a sporting event practically impossible, but FIFA’s posturing last year seemed to have mainly been a result of the increased scrutiny surrounding the ban on Iranian women attending football matches, caused by the death of Khodayari. Like the FIVB, FIFA returned to business as usual as soon as the scrutiny died down.

Evidently, there appears to only be a response to Iran’s discriminatory policy when there is a significant degree of pressure. Organisations such as Human Rights Watch are incessantly campaigning for the rights of Iranian women, but the extra ammunition of anger on social media seems to push International Federations to take action. 

Some sporting organisations have showed no qualms about associating with the Iranian Wrestling Federation despite the recent execution of Navid Afkari ©Getty ImagesSome sporting organisations have showed no qualms about associating with the Iranian Wrestling Federation despite the recent execution of Navid Afkari ©Getty Images

Some sporting organisations are more brazen than that, however. The Serbian Wrestling Federation caused jaws to drop when it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Iranian Wrestling Federation this week.

This came just a month after Iran received widespread condemnation for the execution of 27-year-old wrestler Navid Afkari. The Iranian had been given two death sentences for allegedly stabbing a security guard and his involvement in demonstrations against the country’s regime in 2018. He claimed he had been coerced into giving a false confession before he was executed in September.

Despite this, Serbian Wrestling Federation President Željko Trajković had the gall to describe Iran as a potential “role model” upon signing the MoU. The ability to completely look past the recent execution of an athlete was shocking, even by the standards of international sport.

Colleague Liam Morgan wrote a blog last month on the inaction of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) over Afkari’s death. As he concluded, Iran should have already been sanctioned for previous misdemeanours, such as the prominent examples of gender discrimination in sport.

The country has yet to be punished, however, and it is obvious the IOC’s lax approach to Iran has rubbed off on organisations lower down in the Olympic Movement. Iran is continuing to get away with preventing women from attending sporting events, and the FIVB awarding the Boys’ Under-19 World Championship to Iran is just the latest example of that. 

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