This week, the Iranian women’s futsal team competes in the 6th Women’s Futsal World Tournament in Guatemala City. But it almost didn’t happen. Just a few short weeks ago, on November 5, the Iranian Football Federation informed the team that, due to visa complications and budgetary constraints, it would be unable to travel to take part in the competition. There was widespread speculation that the decision had been made by a small group of officials, influential security chiefs with strong objections to female athletes competing internationally, or even taking part in sport at all.
Then President Hassan Rouhani stepped in, ordering the Foreign Ministry and the country’s sports minister to make sure the athletes travelled to compete in the tournament following on from its victory in the Asian Women’s Futsal Championship on September 26.
It was a move that met with applause from human rights activists and sports fans alike. In what Minky Worden, Direct of Global Initiatives for Human Rights Watch (HRW), described as a “smart political move,” the president acknowledged that international pressure matters.
Not only did he put an end to what would have been a very vocal campaign to raise awareness about gender inequality at work in Iran — leading to the embarrassing reminder of Iran’s failure to adhere to Olympic charter principles by banning women from stadiums — the president knew he was speaking to some of his key constituents, people who would make their votes count in next year’s parliamentary elections.
But how far can activism have an impact on policy and wider attitudes within society when it comes to human rights? Can civil society campaigns make a difference? How can sporting authorities that put human rights at the center of its agenda hold sway with political systems that have repeatedly ignored some of their key messages?
IranWire spoke to Minky Worden about the recent furor over Iran’s women’s futsal team, gender equality and the potential impact sport can have on politics.
Was the news that Rouhani had stepped in unexpected?
I don’t know that it’s entirely unexpected. We already knew that the battle had broken down along political lines, with the Iranian vice president [for Women and Family Affairs] Shahindokt Molaverdi siding with women who had been fighting for a decade to go to stadiums to watch football and volleyball. Human Rights Watch also launched a campaign on this last month. The world trend is toward gender equality in sport, and it is also toward the sports federations enforcing that trend. So it was politically smart of Rouhani’s government to get ahead of any possible sanction by an international federation for failing to do the right thing by the women’s team. I and others had been in touch with FIFA to request an intervention from the football authorities. If you have fairly earned your right to compete in a world championship, there should not be additional political hurdles thrown up in your way. It should have never been an issue in the first place. One thing about international sports is that you’re supposed to play by the rules. The Iranian football league’s approach to this was one that was going to attract a lot of negative attention.
It’s a terrific outcome that Rouhani issued his directive saying that the women’s team should be able to go to the World Cup but it’s also the Iranian football federation who never should have said that they would be unable to compete. The notion that it was financial problems and visa complications...anything like that should have been taken up with the governing authorities. If there were genuine financial problems or genuine visa complications, I believe that some of the wealthy sports federations might have stepped up to take care of that.
What is the impact of public campaigns and activism around these issues?
HRW has done a lot of advocacy around mega sporting events. it has mostly centered around sports federations or governing bodies like the International Olympics Committee enforcing their own rules, and stopping what we see as a pernicious double standard — and I’ll give you an example of that. Before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, HRW documented a number of serious abuses that come with mega sporting events. And it has to do chiefly with the construction of $50 billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure for Beijing: forced evictions without compensation; migrant labor abuses [during the] building of stadiums and infrastructure; crushing of civil society and locking people up who tried to report on environmental degradation; and also press freedom restrictions.
And Saudi Arabia is an outlier, because it’s the only country that denies women and girls the right to play sport in state schools. And that is a total violation of the Olympic charter, which says that discrimination is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement. In Apartheid-era South Africa, the country was banned from taking part in the Olympics for two decades because they were sending whites-only teams. Taliban-run Afghanistan was also banned for discriminating against women. Both of those countries are back competing once they stopped breaking the Olympic charter. In the Olympic agenda 2020, gender equality is a central plank of the reforms that were passed by Tomas Bach, the new head of the IOC. Iran does have to watch out that they don’t trip the wires of gender equality and attract the attention of the international sports federations for violating gender equality requirements.
What role does civil society play?
Civil society is the absolute indispensable player on the field of this work on mega sporting events and human rights. In Russia, ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, it was civil society — environmental activists — blowing the whistle on environmental degradation around the Sochi Olympics, which were supposed to be the “green” Olympics. It was courageous LGBT rights activists in Russia on the ground who were taking risks to say that discrimination against LGBT people violated the Olympic charter. We’re all aware that they passed a foreign agents law and other measures, and of course [there were] press freedom restrictions. The IOC does not allow restrictions on press freedom because one of the major ways it earns its money is by the sale of media rights. HRW documented serious migrant labor abuses on every single one of the Olympic facilities in Sochi. We presented that information to the IOC, and, after a year-long investigation of 500 incidents, the IOC asked Russia to pay back 6,175 migrant workers $8million in wages that they had been cheated out of. And the head of Olympic construction was jailed. We have shown that if you award a mega sporting event to a government that violates basic human rights, that you will generally make those abuses worse. An example of that is Azerbaijan with the Baku games last year.
Just taking it back to the situation in Iran, we’re on the right side of history here. The FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball), I think, would like the Iranian authorities to do the right thing and let women watch sport in stadiums. But if the Iranian authorities aren’t prepared to do the right thing, then the FIVB needs to find its voice.
If a team was caught doping, then it would be very straightforward, they’d be disqualified. So if you don’t follow the rules of gender equality, which are a central pillar of the Olympic movement, and the FIVB is part of the Olympic movement, then there are consequences.
This is a topic whose time has come. I think the Iranians are sort of surprised that people are focusing on it — but they shouldn’t be. I think Rouhani very much took the smartest path. It would have been a month of ugly exposure of the unequal and unleveled playing field for women and the women’s futsal team. This is also a lesson for the sports federations — that they need to be siding with the reformists, and not with the hardliners. If they side with the reformists, they’re going to strengthen their own position.
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