An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
Volleyball is once again hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons — because of Iran’s discrimination towards its female fans. As the Kish Island Open beach volleyball tournament got underway on February 15, female fans were once again turned away from stadiums.
A woman named Samira traveled with her sister and father from Tehran to the Persian Gulf island to attend the matches, but was turned away each time she arrived at the designated venue. When she challenged the security guard blocking her entry, he gave the following inexplicable response: “They said that women are free to enter — but they did not say that you are.”
The controversial guidelines having been causing a stir in and out of the country for over two years, attracting international media attention when authorities jailed British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami in 2014 for protesting outside a stadium in Iran.
On June 17, 2015, around 100 hardliners surrounded Tehran’s Azadi Stadium and prevented women from entering to watch the Volleyball World League competitions. Their biggest objection was that women would be able to watch the half-naked male volleyball players. As a result, the games had no female spectators.
The World Volleyball Federation (FIVB), which is in charge of the tournament, has repeatedly called on Iran to honor women’s right to attend volleyball matches, and international campaigners, including Human Rights Watch, have pointed out that Iran’s behavior is inconsistent with human rights norms and sporting standards.
In November 2015, the federation announced that Iran would be barred from hosting future FIVB-run international events, including the World Championships, until it allows women to attend volleyball matches.
In a meeting in Switzerland in summer 2015, Mohammad Reza Davarzani, the president of the Iranian National Volleyball Team, had no choice but to promise Ary Graça, head of FIVB, that the issue of women’s attendance at sports stadiums would be resolved.
Kish Island in the Persian Gulf was selected to host the 2016 Beach Volleyball World Tour, a competition that must take place in open air and played on sand. Davarzani had promised that this time, women spectators would be allowed to watch the games.
In January 2016, Richard Baker, FIVB’s Communications Director, announced that Iran had confirmed that during Kish competitions, “everybody, regardless of gender or age, including families and women” would be allowed to attend the games. Baker said that Iran had taken a big step and told Tasnim news agency that he was very happy that both women and men would have equal opportunity to attend the games.
But it was a commitment that Davarzani could not keep. On the first day of the competition, women were barred. There were no female observers. Some of them watched the games from the terrace of the next-door coffee shop.
“The first day they told us that there was a problem,” Samira told IranWire. “They did not even say that women were not allowed. We asked them why men were being allowed in if there was a problem. But they would not give us a straight answer. They told us that if we wanted to watch the Iranian team there was enough time for us to get back to our hotels or homes and watch the game on TV. So we went to the coffee shop.”
On Wednesday, February 17, Samira and others were again told they could not enter. The only option left was to go to the next-door coffee shop again. But, Samira said, this was not possible. “On Wednesday, they told the coffee shop’s manager not to let women in. He turned some of them away at the door."
Iran had sent two beach teams, A and B, to the tour. The A Team was defeated by Poland but the B Team defeated Norway, delaying Iran’s elimination from the competition, if only for a short period.
On Thursday, February 18, the security guards’ story was completely different. When women spectators arrived at the gates, they told them, “What are you going to watch when Iranians are not even in the game?”
"On Thursday they closed the coffee shop altogether!” said Samira.
But Iran’s Volleyball Federation had thought about everything, including international criticism. Once in a while, the cameras zoomed in to shots of women in headscarves and shawls sitting around the playing field. It turned out that the federation had issued special ID cards to female reporters who had traveled to Kish Island. Some of the special IDs were also given to the wives and the daughters of Kish Free Trade Zone officials. Alireza Izadbakhsh, head of Kish Island’s Security, was in charge of selecting the small group of around 15 female spectators.
“A number of women with ID cards hanging around their necks were allowed in,” Samira said. “When we ask the guards why they were allowed in, they told us they were reporters and guests. I said: I want to know how we can become guests for a day!”
It remains to be seen whether the gesture of allowing a group of hand-picked women to watch the games will be enough for the Iranian Volleyball Federation to convince the FIVB that it has conformed to the guidelines regarding female spectators, and that that it should be allowed to continue hosting international competitions. It seems possible, as the FIVB is unlikely to have had any of its own officials based outside the volleyball arena. There were probably very few officials who would have witnessed the groups of disgruntled women fans outside, blocked from entering.
Pedram Ghaemi, Citizen Journalist