Over the past week, Iran hosted for the first time an international men’s volleyball competition between its national team and the United States in Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Sports Complex. It was a historic match—but for all the wrong reasons. The 12,000 seat stadium was almost entirely off limits to girls and women.
The matches are among some 160 international competitions organized in 62 host cities by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB—like FIFA, the sports body is known by its French acronym), which oversees the 2015 World League.
According to women inside Iran who are campaigning to attend the matches as spectators, Iranian authorities reneged on promises that they could attend and restricted ticket sales to men three days before the opening match on Friday, June 19. Security forces took up positions around the stadium, inspected approaching cars at checkpoints, and diverted women away. In flyers, political hardliners compared women spectators in stadiums to “prostitutes.”
Iranian authorities have banned women and girls from stadiums hosting football matches for decades, but only recently extended the ban to volleyball—in flagrant violation of the principle of gender non-discrimination in sports.
In June, Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, raised hopes among women and activists who continue to campaign for access to the country’s sports stadiums when she told the Associated Press that some women would be allowed into the stadiums for the FIVB World League matches.
During the past year, Iranian officials have issued numerous conflicting statements regarding whether they would lift these restrictions on attendance of women and girls—who are not prohibited from participating in women’s volleyball games—wholly or in part.
On June 30, 2014, authorities arrested Ghoncheh Ghavami and others as they peacefully protested the ban on female Iranian spectators, prompting the FIVB to call for Ghavami’s release. The FIVB also affirmed its commitment to “inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis.” Authorities finally released Ghavami last November and effectively dropped the charges against her but banned her from traveling abroad for two years.
By continuing to impose the ban and flout global sports’ rules on non-discrimination, Iran has betrayed its lack of commitment to inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis. OpenStadiums, a group of Iranian and international activists pushing to end the ban on women entering stadiums, wrote to the FIVB in May asking the federation to help them gain access to Iran’s stadiums to see volleyball played. OpenStadiums never received an answer.
The FIVB’s response to Iran’s ban was this:
Following the efforts by the FIVB in the past year to work with governing bodies around the world to ensure that female spectators are granted access to all volleyball matches, the FIVB followed the Iran v USA matches in Tehran closely.
Although the full access the FIVB sought was not provided, the FIVB understands and respects the situation at the match in Tehran and the need to prioritise the security of the public. As a sports organisation, the FIVB has no power to dictate cultural or social paradigms. However, we remain 100% committed to ensuring inclusivity, gender equality and universal access to sport around the world and will continue to work with all parties to ensure that this goal is achieved.
To the contrary, as the high priests of Volleyball and the overseer of international matches, the FIVB very much has the power to insist that Iranian women not be banned from tournaments it oversees. The Olympic Charter mandates it, and in 2015, Iran is very much an outlier in excluding women from watching sports.
In Iran, reformists and hardliners alike also want to see their team win in Volleyball, and that is where the leverage lies, if the FIVB is prepared to defend its own rules.
Luckily for the FIVB all is not lost. Iran is scheduled to host two more men’s international volleyball matches, on June 26 and 28.
So the FIVB has two more opportunities to make clear to Iran—and to Iranian women—that there will be serious consequences if the authorities continue to show bad faith and exclude women and girls.
The ball is now in the FIVB’s court. What they will do in the coming days will determine whether they are truly committed to stand up for the principles of nondiscrimination in sport—or whether they will look the other way as Iran continues to exclude and discriminate against women.