The issue of female spectators at volleyball games in Iran is a microcosm of Iranian politics in general:
- At first there is a status quo that is contested by the Iranian people who are seeking more freedom.
- The West backs the protesters in their cause in the hope for change.
- Rouhani voices support for the protesters.
- The Iranian authorities look as if they will concede to the demands of the protesters.
- Hardliners protest in their turn, promising blood, and the authorities renege on their decisions at the last minute.
- The protesters’ rights are curtailed while the West along with the helpless Rouhani, protest once again to no avail.
The bottom line is this: despite the protestations of the Iranian people, Western human rights groups, the international volleyball association and President Rouhani himself, the status quo has returned because a few hardliners promised blood.
If this is how Tehran acts over a volleyball game, why should anyone expect any more on the issue of executions or the nuclear deal?
Ghoncheh Ghavami – the “volleyball prisoner”
Last June, a young British-Iranian human rights activist by the name of Ghoncheh Ghavami, attended a volleyball game in Tehran and was subsequently arrested. She was released within hours and then rearrested to rot in jail for five months until her trial. At first, the accusations against Ghoncheh ranged from spreading propaganda, ties with the opposition and even spying. After six months, which included minimal communications with her lawyers and family and repeated hunger strikes, she was tried only for “propagating against the ruling system” and sentenced to one year in jail.
Meanwhile, many human rights activists and organizations, together with the international volleyball federation (FIVB), and even Rouhani himself, picked up her cause and called for her release. The FIVB went as far as to sign a resolution “not give Iran the right to host any future FIVB directly controlled events such as World Championships, especially under age, until the ban on women attending volleyball matches is lifted“. Finally, the courts acquiesced and on November 22nd, Ghoncheh was finally set free of jail but not out of Iran due to a travel ban for two years.
As far as everyone was concerned, it seemed that the authorities had capitulated: Ghoncheh was not free, but at least she wasn’t in jail and the authorities had agreed to sell tickets to women fans.
Protests on all sides
In January, the Iranian volleyball association had agreed to allow “some” women into the match. “Some”? The authorities didn’t specify but it was believed that 500 family members and foreign women (expats and diplomats) would be able to attend. In April 2015, the deputy minister of sports, Abdolhamid Ahmadi, reiterated that women would be allowed into stadiums.
The vagueness of the authorities sent Iranian social activists to protest and the FIVB reiterated its decision: “The FIVB is monitoring the situation and will liaise closely with the international federation of volleyball officials onsite, to monitor Iran’s conditions for hosting the 26th FIVB world league. The FIVB remains totally committed to ensuring inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis all around the world“.
But, the protesters and the clout of FIVB were not enough to counter the shouts of the Ummat Hezbollah hardliners who handed out leaflets promising to take “a stand against the presence of prostitutes… in stadiums,” and promised that “this Friday there will be blood”. The tide was changing.
Iran’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdifor, tried to take on the hardliners, protesting officially and through her facebook page that a “crowd of sanctimonious people who published one notice after another denouncing the modest and decent girls and women of this land who talked of confrontation used obscene and disgusting insults that only befit themselves“.
Iran vs. US…without women
The long awaited match between Iran and the US was looming and the issue of the women fans still looked grim but somehow, the FIVB remained hopeful: “We hope that the government will allow Iranian women to cheer for their national team alongside their male counterparts“.
The hopes of the FIVB and fans were shattered as security agents stopped and checked cars for women inside, prohibiting the cars to continue up to the stadium. The match would be held, despite the promises over the past few months, without women in the stadium. Iran went on to beat the US, 3-0, breaking their 6-0 winning streak.
The hardliners had prevailed and had done so despite the efforts of Rouhani and his administration.
The issue of the segregation of sports may seem minuscule besides issues such as executions, terrorism, oppression etc…which are part of Tehran’s regime. But in fact the issue mirrors the regime’s actions by hardliners to oppose any form of loosening up of the Shariah laws established in 1979. President Rouhani promised to make peace with the West, to lead a peaceful nuclear program, to create equality for women, to allow more political freedom etc…But the fact of the matter is that if Rouhani cannot convince the regime and the hardliners to allow some women into a sports stadium, how can he be trusted to carry out far bigger changes?