A recent video from Human Rights Watch may be animated, but the scene it portrays isn't fictitious: a young girl tries to attend a volleyball match at Azadi Stadium, in Tehran. Before she can enter the stadium, the gates of Azadi—which means "freedom" in Persian—are slammed in her face. This is reality for women and girls in Iran who want to attend sporting events. They are banned from stadiums in their own country.
A group of determined women and men want to change this. The video is from HRW's #Watch4Women campaign, which is aimed not just at Iran but at the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), which is allowing Iran to host an international tournament that half its population, by law, is not permitted to attend. Iran has banned women from men's volleyball matches since 2012. The campaign's request is simple: that FIVB should uphold its own ideals of nondiscrimination and ban Iran from hosting tournaments until Iranian women can freely attend them. So far, FIVB has failed to do even that.
There is a long history of activists fighting for women's access to stadiums in Iran, ever since the country banned women from soccer matches in 1979. (In some cases, stadium bans have not applied to foreign women, but they have always applied to Iranians.) While the bans affect all stadium sports in Iran, including rugby, field hockey, and wrestling, HRW's current strategy is to focus on FIVB.
"Volleyball is a major sport in Iran and a source of national pride, so there is leverage there," said Minky Worden, who heads the #Watch4Women campaign.
Iran's stadium ban sparked international outrage last year, when British-Iranian student Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested and kept in solitary confinement for trying to watch a volleyball match at Azadi. In November, while Ghavami was still imprisoned, HRW met with FIVB in Lausanne, where the federation promised it would work to free Ghavami. After that meeting, FIVB also pledged that Iran would not be awarded hosting privileges for future tournaments if women were banned, though this did not include events already scheduled in Iran this summer. Ghavami was released on bail later that month, and the charges were dropped in April.
Also in April, Iran announced it would allow start to allow women to attend major sporting events. FIVB was among those who hailed this development as a step in the right direction, even as it reiterated that "it would not award Iran hosting rights to any FIVB controlled events while women were banned from sporting events in the country."
On June 19, Iran hosted the United States for a FIVB World League match in Tehran, its first since Ghavami's release. Despite the earlier promise from authorities about softening the ban, Iran's Volleyball Federation declared that women spectators and journalists would not be allowed to attend, and security was enforced outside to prevent them from sneaking in. Even members of the Iranian government were upset. Shahindokht Molaverdi, the Vice President for Women's and Family Affairs, publicly called out the hypocrisy of of male officials who, instead of prioritizing homelessness and drug abuse among women in Tehran, are fixated on keeping women from watching sports.
Yet FIVB was silent about this reversal: Iranian Volleyball issued all the statements, and questions from media were restricted.
Pictured: the crowd at the Iran-USA volleyball match this summer. Not pictured: any women. Photo by Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA
"By letting the summer World League matches take place without women—and without a formal protest—the FIVB literally dropped the ball on their own commitment to gender equality, and set back the women fighting to go to stadiums by rolling over to the hardliners who threatened them," said Worden.
Then, in October, FIVB announced that Iran would host its Beach Volleyball World Tour in February, breaking its promise not to award more events to the country while the stadium ban is still in place. Days later, HRW launched its #Watch4Women campaign.
Many sports federations, including FIVB, proclaim their dedication to values such as gender equality and nondiscrimination, but few of them have enforced their standards when it comes to Iran. Open Stadiums, one of the country's most active groups, started lobbying FIFA more than ten years ago. Unsurprisingly, FIFA has done nothing concrete to help women get into the stands for soccer games. "We always point out that it was FIFA's failure to fight the ban that led to the ban being extended to volleyball," Worden said, explaining why this moment is so critical for Iranian women.
"No discrimination" is the fourth fundamental principle of FIVB's constitution. At the its World Congress last year, while Ghavami was still in prison, FIVB President Ary Graça told all 210 national federations, "In accordance with the Olympic Charter, the FIVB is committed to inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis." Yet when asked about the ban on women, according to HRW, FIVB's most recent defense of their sexism apologia is that "As a sports organization, the FIVB has no power to dictate cultural or social paradigms." (FIVB did not respond to a request for comment from VICE Sports.)
The federation's inconsistency is frustrating, and its comments are reductive, at best. The FIVB constitution lists as its final objective, "Take all appropriate measures directly and indirectly related to the practice of Volleyball and in the best interest of the sport of Volleyball," yet it has no issue with one of its national federations preventing half the base from watching and supporting the sport. FIVB has offered training seminars and skills sessions for a select number of female coaches in Iran, yet those female coaches are not allowed to learn from or support their male counterparts in larger international matches. It makes no sense to disconnect one process of sports participation from the other. Is it a "social paradigm" to deny young athletes, journalists, and female relatives of athletes the joys of an exciting live match just because of their gender? No, it's a violation of basic human rights.
Men and women happily cheering for Iran together—just in a stadium in Poland. Photo by
Activists hope that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who is considered a moderate and has publicly supported Iranian women in sports, will be able to convince the hardline clerics who impose these bans that stadiums are not just for men and boys. Encouraging other reform-minded officials to apply internal pressure on the government will also be necessary to overturn the ban, and HRW plans to continue its campaign with a letter addressed to the Iranian Minister of Sports and Youth, in the hope of enlisting his support. In the meantime, HRW wants supporters of women's rights and sports fans around the world to show their solidarity and keep pressure on FIVB with Facebook messages, tweets, and campaigns on other social media platforms in support of women who are unjustly kept from life experiences.
It is unlikely that FIVB will boycott or cancel the upcoming tournaments, and they may keep deferring to the Iranian Federation. They might make a few public statements in support of lifting the stadium ban without doing much else, as FIFA has before it. But the international outcry surrounding Ghoncheh Ghavami's imprisonment showed how sustained attention from media and organizations overseas can persuade Iranian authorities to take steps in the right direction, if for no reason other than to avoid the negative publicity. For HRW, the #Watch4Women campaign would ideally bring an immediate end not only to the volleyball ban but also to similar measures in other sports, and foster better respect for women's rights and gender equality in Iran more broadly.
It's unfathomable that something so simple as watching a sport should be considered unacceptable for half the population. Women should be in the stands, on the bleachers, and in coffee shops, cheering with their fellow countrymen, not forced to leave their country or risk being arrested just for enjoying sports. Despite this injustice, though, Iranian women remain joyful supporters, remaining loyal to teams that many have never seen play in person. They are resilient, and they are pushing back against these barriers. With the help of Human Rights Watch, they might be able to break down the gates at Azadi Stadium, and at sports venues all around Iran, for good.