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Iran’s volleyball ban : Half the freedom

Four weeks from now, the athletes will serve the ball on Kish Island. Sara contemplates how to get there and how to hold the organisers to their pledge. Getting there is not cheap, more than 100 dollars, a high cost under Iranian conditions. Young people tend to spend this amount of money to fly to Dubai, Turkey, or Armenia – places not necessarily more scenic or warmer than Kish, but more liberal. Kish is a family destination. The organisers’ focus on “family” in its public statements is clever. But the timing is odd. There are no holidays in Iran between February 15 and 19.

That's not to say there wouldn't have have been an option to stage the tournament on a visitor-friendly weekend: Four days before the start of the tournament, on February 11, the Islamic Republic will celebrate the Revolution’s 37th anniversary. An opportunity not seized: it might have been too much of a red flag for conservatives, or too much of an invitation to the youth, to young women in particular, to take the jet to Kish. Now, hardly anyone will just come for the tournament. If the event had been scheduled during a warmer season say in late April or early May, at the Azadi complex in Tehran, there would have been enormous interest, with possibly ten thousand enthusiasts or more.

„Everyone was cool about it“

Now, the Kish Open may set a minor precedent. Or it may cause chagrin yet again. The only certainty is: this event is not going to change the law, as Iran prepares to hold the parliamentary elections a week after the tournament. The law is not going to change, because sports officials have not spoken to the relevant politicians, officials and mullahs in Tehran and Qom, and because they have awarded the Iranian federation.

Open Stadiums has posted a video on Youtube. In 2008, a young woman named „Maryam“ had dressed as a boy, just as the characters in director Jafar Panahi’s 2006 movie “Offside”, and entered Azadi stadium to watch a soccer game played by Tehran club Esteghlal. Maryam is joined by two young men who are filming. As the leave the stadium, one of them asks her:

Maryam, were you scared?

Yes, very much.

The friend turns to the other man:

“The guys around us knew about her.”

He replies: “Yeah, dude. I called her Maryam twice myself. But everyone was cool about it.”

Maryam says: “There aren’t going to be problems, even if the men knew. They were glad they had a girl sitting there. They were well behaved. No one cursed.”

The year 2008 was also the time when Open Stadiums pointed to volleyball as an example to be followed by authorities with regard to soccer. In those days, the campaigners wore white scarves, because they knew the police would never tear down the hijabs. They had adorned them with Farsi slogans: Zam zan nimi az azadi. „Women share half the freedom.“

Since then, the group of campaigners has shrunk, Sara says, especially after the crackdown following the 2009 presidential election. But the 2012 ban on female volleyball fans turned the tide. Now the group is growing again. Many women are unwilling to relinquish a freedom they had enjoyed for years. And one thing will never change in Iran: The word „Azadi“ - Freedom - is a noun just like any other in Farsi. It has no gender.

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