Iran's Stadium Ban on Women Puts the FIVB in a Precarious Position

The International Volleyball Federation must either sanction one of the best volleyball teams in the world for a political and human rights issue, or continue to allow the status quo in Iran. Recent events suggest the FIVB has made its choice.

Feb 18 2016, 5:49pm

Courtesy Saar Van Hoydonck

At 12:01 PM on July 4, during the Beach Volleyball World Championships in The Hague, Netherlands, Darya Safai unfurled the banner she customarily takes to sporting events, which calls for Iranian women to be allowed to enter stadiums. Safai, standing in the front row, held the banner just over the front barrier so it dangled below the bleachers as the small stadium blasted unidentifiable, bland techno before the match.

Safai, a petite woman with long dark hair flowing down her back, grew up in Iran but now lives in Belgium. She fled her home country in 1999 after being arrested and placed in solitary confinement for participating in the student protests. At the match in The Hague, she wore a white T-shirt reading "Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums" and bounced almost imperceptibly to the beat as she held her banner.

Iran has banned women from attending matches in stadiums in many sports. A soccer match ban has existed since 1979, and in 2012 the government extended the ban to volleyball matches. The rationale, according to Human Rights Watch, is that "Iranian officials claim that allowing women to attend sports events that men attend is un-Islamic, threatens public order, and exposes women to crude behavior by male fans."

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Safai has protested many volleyball matches around the world. Her quest to have the Iranian stadium ban lifted has led her to Poland, Italy, Sweden, and the U.S. without incident. She regularly posts pictures afterward on Facebook of her smiling next to volleyball players, coaches, officials, and other notable figures holding her banner or a T-shirt embroidered with the slogan, or otherwise simply being next to her. Her cheeks are always painted with an Iranian flag, and her head is wrapped in an Iranian flag headband.

But, for reasons unclear, something different happened at The Hague last July. Three minutes after Safai unfurled her banner, a member of stadium security approached her from behind and, without warning, restrained her, threw her to the ground, took her banner, and removed Safai and her friend from the stands. Once the police arrived and saw Safai's bruises, they took her to the police station to file a criminal complaint. Safai still cannot believe the abusive confrontation. "We were treated like criminals."

Safai's friend filmed part of the incident with her phone. At the very least, the video shows a confrontation.

The Dutch Volleyball Federation, which oversaw the event, told VICE Sports, "It's true that these two women were pulled from the stands by security. After that, the situation was, in our view, soothed and solved." When asked why the women were pulled from the stands, the Federation said it believed the women were violating some Dutch or The Hague government law about protesting with banners "on this location" and recommended we contact the city of The Hague for more information. The Hague police directed VICE Sports back to the Dutch Volleyball Federation: "The Dutch Volleyball Federation probably has certain rules regarding protest banners, but you'd better ask them. When a police report is filed about a punishable offence, the police investigates and sends its findings on to the prosecutor for prosecution." The prosecutor's office dismissed the case due to a lack of evidence.

Of far greater concern to Safai was that the investigation did not provide any clarity about why the incident took place. Likewise, nobody—not the Dutch Volleyball Federation, The Hague police, or the prosecutor's office—was able to tell VICE Sports what law or rule against protesting or banners Safai was violating. For their part, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), and the City of Hague did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Read More: The FIVB's Shameful Silence on Volleyball in Iran

This week, Iran is hosting a beach volleyball tournament, the Kish Island Open. The FIVB claims that allowing female spectators was part of the agreement with the Iranian volleyball federation for them to host the tournament. However, on Tuesday, some women were once again prevented from attending matches, which the FIVB chalked up to "misunderstandings." FIVB spokesman Richard Baker told the Associated Press, "There were some misunderstandings with regard to security," a curiously similar explanation to the one he gave Safai about the incident at The Hague. Baker also told the AP the Iranian women were told to watch games from a cafe across the street overlooking the main court.

The FIVB, one of the more progressive sports governing bodies on the planet, has been forced into a position where it must either sanction one of the best volleyball teams in the world for a political and human rights issue, or continue to allow the status quo. The incident at The Hague, their reaction to it, and this week's tournament in Iran suggest the FIVB has made its choice.

Iran has invested heavily and effectively in its volleyball program, developing one of the best teams in the world. The FIVB cannot ignore or easily sanction one of the best on-court stories of the past few years. However, the organization also had plenty of grounds to sanction Iran. In 2014, Iranian authorities arrested Ghoncheh Ghavami and about two dozen others when they sought to attend a Volleyball World League match at Tehran's Azadi Stadium (ironically, "Azadi" is Persian for "freedom"). Ghavami was re-arrested soon after, charged with "propaganda against the state," and held in solitary confinement for over a month in Evin prison, which has been compared on numerous occasions to a torture chamber. Ghavami remained in the prison for five months because she tried to buy a ticket to a volleyball game.

Safai with Iranian Men's Volleyball head coach Slobodan Kovac. Courtesy Saar Van Hoydonck

Lori Okimura, chairman of USA Volleyball, first heard of Safai in 2014, when the Iranian volleyball team went to Los Angeles for a friendly match, their first visit to the U.S. in 35 years. Safai was there, holding her banner and giving out T-shirts, but the two women didn't actually meet. According to Okimura, a State Department official issued a vague communication about Safai in advance of the friendly. "I wouldn't call it a warning," Okimura says, "but it was a communication alerting us to the fact that, they called her an activist, planning to protest the matches." Prior to meeting Safai, Okimura had the impression, based on the State Department's message, that she was an agitator of sorts who could potentially cause trouble. After meeting Safai in 2015, Okimura now realizes this could not have been further from the truth.

During that friendly match, Okimura had her first run-in with Iranian gender politics. At the State Department's request, according to Okimura, USA Volleyball flew in a male delegate from its headquarters in Colorado Springs for the various ceremonial gatherings between Iranian and American officials, effectively replacing Okimura due to her gender, even though she lives in the Los Angeles area. "When they found out that the president of USA Volleyball was a woman," Okimura recalled, "they asked for the other guy."

The following year, in 2015, the U.S. drew Iran in the same pool for the FIVB Men's World League, meaning each country would have to host the other. Immediately, Okimura wondered if she would be allowed to travel with the team, as she often does on her own dime. More important, she says, she wondered if the team's press officer and sports psychologist, both women who sit on or near the team's bench for every game, would be permitted to enter the stadium for the away match in Iran.

According to Okimura, the State Department "made pretty clear" to the three women there could be potential problems. "[There was] no hard and fast refusal of anybody's access, but it was made clear that, well, you're taking this trip at your own risk." The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with Iran; if the police decided to arrest or detain the women for breaking the law like they did to Ghavami, there was little anyone could do. Further complicating matters, the men's team event director is a woman. "[The Iranians] wouldn't deal directly with her," Okimura sighed. "They kept going to our male team manager and not to the woman who was in charge of every single detail for every event."

Almost immediately afterward, Okimura withdrew her request to travel with the team. "Our team had a really good shot to win and I didn't want to do anything that was going to be distracting," she said. The sports psychologist did the same. Only the press officer went to Tehran and received permission to enter the stadium.

An Iranian girl waves the Iranian national flag during the World Volleyball league game between Iran and the U.S. at the Azadi Stadium, in Tehran, on January 19. After a controversy over women attending the match, the game was ultimately held without Iranian women in the stands. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH

The FIVB's tolerance of Iran's blatant gender discrimination comes as a bit of a surprise for Okimura, who has worked in volleyball her entire life and sees this as a break from their progressive policies, including awarding equal prize money for men's and women's tournaments, an issue on which organizations such as FIFA are still very much behind. "I've always been proud to be a part of FIVB because the sport of volleyball, to me, always lended opportunities equally to men and women," Okimura said. "I'm really disappointed that it seems to me the events are still being awarded, the subject matter of women not being allowed—I always have to cringe when I say the word 'allowed'—to enter these stadiums."

Indeed, the FIVB has publicly said or done little to address the problem. The FIVB's general director, Fabio Azevedo, wrote a reserved letter to Safai after The Hague incident, stating in part:

"Our aim has always been to ensure that the family is granted access to volleyball and all sport on an equal basis, however we remain convinced that we will only be able to achieve this through dialogue and engagement.... Ultimately, as a sports organisation the FIVB has no power to dictate political, cultural or social paradigms. However, we remain 100% committed to ensuring inclusivity, gender equality and universal access to sport around the world and we are prepared to continue engaging with you to help ensure success in our shared cause."

This line of reasoning has been echoed by the FIVB's press officer, Richard Baker, in numerous interviews prior to the Iranian tournament. He stated them once again after the Iranian women were barred on Tuesday, noting that the Iranian federation "has the best intentions but there are cultural issues." Essentially, the FIVB's position boils down to: we're working on it.

Ironically, the FIVB's "no discrimination" clause in its constitution is the organization's strongest defense against sanctioning Iran for blatant discrimination: "The FIVB shall not discriminate between individuals or between nations and shall refrain from any involvement in political, religious, philosophical or racial matters [emphasis added]." They could easily interpret this clause as a mandate not to interfere with Iran's internal politics and religion. The FIVB is in a no-win situation. Holding events in Iran enables the discrimination, but withholding events punishes the teams who have no control over the country's laws.

Furthermore, it's unclear that refusing to hold events in Iran until the ban is lifted would sway the Iranian government in the slightest. Okimura doesn't agree with the FIVB's inaction so far, but understands they can only do so much: "We're not going to change hundreds of years of cultural and political beliefs as a volleyball federation."

Meanwhile, Safai is still seeking some sort of explanation as to why she was not allowed to protest at The Hague, and whether similar actions will be taken in the future against peaceful protesters like herself. The Hague police said they received no advanced warning about Safai similar to the State Department's warning to USA Volleyball. It's difficult to comprehend how a security guard perceived a woman holding a banner as a genuine security risk (per Dutch law, the security guard's identity was not made public). Again, the FIVB did not reply to repeated requests for comment to clear up the situation, nor did Baker, the press officer, give Safai any substantive explanation when they spoke that day.

Rather than making progress, the FIVB seems to be surrendering ground. Iran continues to host matches and tournaments. Voices of protest are now silenced. Women working in professional capacities continue to be excluded from their duties when dealing with the Iranian delegation.

During the 2014 FIVB World Championships in Poland, Safai took pictures with the Iranian men's team coach and several of their players, in her full protest regalia. That same year in Los Angeles, Mojtaba Mirzajanpour, one of Iran's most famous players, accepted one of Safai's T-shirts in a gesture of support. In Iran, it can be risky for players to show support for any of these issues—several players are currently experiencing criticism for taking selfies with women—but the players want their wives and daughters to be able to watch them play as much as the women do.

In retrospect, Okimura knows she probably could have attended the match in Iran without much incident, but cringes at the spectacle of foreign women being allowed to enter the stadium when Iranian women aren't. "I don't want to go into a stadium if those women can't."

Additional reporting by Leander Schaerlaeckens.