The issue of allowing Iranian women to cheer on their sports teams from the stadiums was reignited at the Kish Island Open leg of the Beach Volleyball World Tour last week: Despite assurances by the local authorities, women who came to the stadium were not allowed to enter and were forced to view the tournament from a cafeteria or from its rooftop.
This ongoing saga regarding the demands by Iranian authorities to segregate the stadiums and the demands by international sports organizations to allow women to cheer on their teams is a snapshot of the problems of diplomacy with Iran: The local authorities agree to any stipulations by the sports organizations and then simply renege on these agreements in real-time.
It may seem impossible to change the segregation laws in Iran, perhaps rightly so since this is an internal issue, but if Iran wants to host international tournaments, it must acquiesce to international laws or not host the games at all.
Segregation in stadiums
Why the fuss? Apart from the fact that gender segregation is a basic Islamic law to separate women from men in public places, the authorities fear that women may drop into immorality from watching men playing sports. Women have been barred from football stadiums since the Islamic Revolution. In 2012, the authorities added volleyball, a very popular sport in Iran, to the sports that cannot be viewed by women from the stadiums.
The issue of gender segregation on volleyball games rose to headlines in June 2014 when Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian activist was arrested for trying to attend a volleyball game. She was released six months later on bail but was forced to serve a two-year travel ban. Ghavami’s arrest led the World Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) to ban Iran from hosting international volleyball tournaments in the future. The message was clear according the FIVB spokesman: The FIVB will “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”.
The local authorities resorted to some basic haggling: “some” women, specially foreign nationals in Iran, would be allowed.
Not good enough, answered the FIVB: “The FIVB has been informed that there is no change to Iran’s previous decision to ease its ban on women attending sporting events…(and) 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.”
Tehran seemed to weaken and added that other women, family members of the players, could attend as well.
The FIVB relented and the game between Iran and the USA was scheduled to take place in June 2015. Two hundred tickets were set aside for women but as they approached the stadium, they were prevented from entering. In fact, Ansar-e Hezbollah, a religious vigilante group, handed out fliers which made its position clear: “We are taking a stand against legalizing the presence of prostitutes… in stadiums…this Friday there will be blood“.
Iran’s vice president, Shahindokt Molaverdi, a woman who is in charge of “family matters” criticized the authorities’ actions loudly with special attention to the “crowd of sanctimonious people who published one notice after another denouncing the modest and decent girls and women of this land (and who)used obscene and disgusting insults that only befit themselves“.
Her criticism fell on deaf ears, as did campaigns to allow women into stadiums, such as this one from Human Rights Watch, #Watch4Women in Iran – https://www.hrw.org/watch4women.
The Case of Kish Island
On February 7, 2016, the FIVB announced that the Kish Island Open tournament “will be open to fans from all age groups and genders. This will include families and women”.
The reality of the situation became clear at the stadium as women were forbidden to enter. As one woman recounted: “We went there and a security [officer] told me, ‘Where are you going? I said, ‘Watching matches’. He said: ‘It’s forbidden.'”
The FIVB issued a rosy statement deeming the tournament a “success” but FIVB spokesman Richard Baker must have been at a loss for good excuses when he said that “there were some misunderstandings with regard to security“. Security? How do women fans in a stadium represent a threat to “security”?
Baker then added that “there have been misunderstandings throughout the day, and we have had to seek clarification,” but the Iranian federation “has the best intentions but there are cultural issues”.
Baker should have understood that the problem is not one of “security” but one of “policy”: Tehran will never give up its Islamist principles from pressure from abroad.
Some blamed the FIVB for lying in regards to the issue but it is much more probable that the FIVB’s main crime was to naively believe the promises from Tehran. In any case, the FIVB must decide whether it should allow tournaments to be held in Iran in the future or not. Just in case the guys at the FIVB didn’t understand until now, the Iranians are notorious for their negotiation skills. In fact the similarities between the issue of gender segregation at volleyball games closely mirrors the negotiations and the signing of the JCPoA: The Western authorities make demands, Tehran haggles and sticks to its guns, allows some theoretical leeway and then does whatever it wants in the end because there is little room to argue with issues such as “security”.