We Sat With An Iranian Protestor As She Fought to Display Her Banner at the Olympics

On Saturday, Darya Safai was hassled about her banner calling for equal rights for Iranian women at sports stadiums. On Monday, she and security officials reached a compromise.

Aug 15 2016, 7:25pm

Photo by Aaron Gordon

VICE Sports staff writer Aaron Gordon is in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics and filing daily dispatches.

About a week before the Olympics began, Darya Safai came to the conclusion that if she couldn't display her banner at the Olympics, then the entire Olympic movement was a lie. Safai has traveled to volleyball events around the world displaying her banner, "Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums," protesting a ban in her native country of women entering sports stadiums. The message, Safai believed, is in accordance with the Olympic Charter's mission "to encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels and in all structures with a view to implementing the principle of equality of men and women."

Safai, who now lives in Belgium after fleeing Iran due to her participation in the student protests of 1999, bought her tickets to Rio and the Iran indoor volleyball games less than two weeks ago.

On Saturday, she tried to display her banner at Iran's match against Argentina. Before she could unfurl it from the front row, stadium volunteers came over and told her she had to return to her seat in the corner of the stadium, where few people would see her sign and TV cameras would not capture it. Safai, a physically unimposing figure at no more than five feet tall, refused. The section was empty and nobody else's tickets were being checked. She believed she was being unfairly targeted because of her sign, and that perhaps the IOC viewed it as political speech, which the Olympic charter bans from all Olympic venues. However, a Brazilian federal judge ruled on August 9th that this rule is an infringement on peaceful political speech and such protests should be allowed.

After discussions, the event staff radioed the national military covering security at the stadium. The military told Safai the same message: go to your seat or we will have to take you out. Safai said she replied that they would just have to remove her, then, as she always does at venues where she meets opposition. Ultimately, security backed down and she stayed the entire match.

On Monday, Safai returned to Maracanãzinho, the indoor volleyball stadium, for Iran's match against Russia. Safai went through security wearing her T-shirt—which reads the same message as the banner—while her friend Saar Van Hoydonck brought in the banner. Saar had no problem getting through security, but event staff followed Safai from security to the ticket scanner, noting what seat she was assigned. The event staffer then immediately radioed someone, presumably with the seat assignment.

Safai knows from previous protests that she has to sit where the TV cameras will see her banner; otherwise her message will never get out. When she entered the section, the volunteer working the section greeted her with a high-five, recognizing her from Saturday. "I make sure nobody is going to bother you today," he assured her. The volunteer, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press, said Safai's message was not the problem. She just wasn't in her assigned seat one section over.

Safai went straight to the middle seats in the front row opposite the Olympic Broadcast System cameras, the ones that beam out live feeds around the world and get picked up by national rights-holders like NBC in the United States. It didn't take five minutes for event volunteers to confront her, asking her to please go to her assigned seat, even though the section was almost entirely empty at this point.

The volunteer speaking to Safai—a young, tall man—made an impassioned plea. It was obvious his motivation was not to censor her. Instead, his job was to make sure people sat in their assigned seat, and Safai was not doing that, he argued. After about ten minutes of back and forth with a plainclothes security officer on the radio nearby, Safai and the volunteers came to an agreement: she could stay in the seat as long as the ticket holders for those seats didn't show up. If they did, she would have to move.

This entire time, I was sitting about ten rows behind Safai. I got in using an extra ticket Safai had, going through the same entry process as her with a seat assignment right next to hers. Nobody checked my ticket to make sure I was sitting in the right seat. Nobody bothered me.

Not long after, a middle-aged man and his son draped in Iranian flags sat directly behind Safai, who herself wears an Iranian-flag headband and painted cheeks with Iranian colors. They exchanged a few words as she triumphantly held her banner aloft. She laughed and he smiled back.

Safai turned to me, clearly triumphant, beaming. "He says it is a good message."

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