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Iran’s volleyball ban : Half the freedom

Free to cheer: Iranian volleyball supporters at the 2014 World championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland Bild: Picture-Alliance

In February, Iran will host a beach volleyball event awarded by the International Volleyball Federation. A historic event to some. A scandal, others say. And the women?

          Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi had a great plan for the small island named Kish in the Persian Gulf. Hatching great  plans was the Shahanshah’s, the King of King’s custom, and the small island named Kish, the Iranian ruler, also known as Aryamehr (“Light of the Aryans”) had decided, was to be the Monte Carlo of the Orient, the Las Vegas of the Middle East. Workers laid a landing strip on the island, a landing strip in order to welcome the Concorde that was supposed to bring the rich and the famous, the Jet-Set, as they were called in the 70s, from London, Paris, New York City.

          Instead of the Concorde, the Islamic Revolution arrived in 1979, and on January 16 of that year, the Shah fled his country. Not in a Concorde, but in the imperial Boeing. Ejected from his own country, in a jet. And Kish Island returned from the Pahlavi estate into the dominion of Iran, that had now turned into a theocracy; the Islamic Republic of Iran. A turbo-charged version of the Pahlavian dream was created only on the Arabian shores of the Persian Gulf, in Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi: excessive, luxurious, expensive.

          Beach volleyball? In the Islamic Republic?

          Kish Island became a holiday island for Iranians (after the long, bloody war with Iraq had finished), and with somewhat looser morals than on the mainland. If you want to go swimming on Kish, you swim with members of your gender, a mile or more of shoreline separates the beach between areas reserved for male and the one for female vacationers. But there are boats for hire to take a co-ed bath on the coral reef.

          Four weeks from now, on February 15, Kish Island will play host to Iranian sporting history. The Beach Volleyball World Tour will come to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to the shores of Kish. The island will host the Kish Island Open. Beach Volleyball? In the Islamic Republic? Indeed. Starting in January 2015, the Iranian Volleyball Federation has asked the International Volleyball Federation, the FIVB, for the acceptance of its bid. Last fall, their voices were heard. A historic event, for some. A scandal, for others.

          In Tehran, a two-hour flight north of Kish, a woman is considering how to get to Kish in February. Her name is „Sara“ in this article, but it’s not her real name which she cannot reveal because it would endanger her saftey. Sara is a member of Open Stadiums, a group campaigning to end discrimination against women, especially in sports. Sara wants to watch the Kish Island Open, but she is not allowed to, at least not according to the laws of the Islamic Republic. Yet, Sara has watched volleyball matches in Iran before.

          The volleyball boom

          “We started our campaign on stadiums ten years ago”, she writes from Tehran. “Our goal was to open football stadiums to women, and we praised the good examples volleyball and basketball set. We said: ‘The atmosphere’s so much better at these sports' events, because men and women go to watch games together whereas we were told we had to stay away from football matches because of the cursing men.' But when our national volleyball team started to be successful internationally, and became champions of Asia – there were so many photographers and journalists in the arena who saw jubilant women! – the authorities suddenly said: 'Stop'. Following a game against Japan in September 2012, women were barred.”  

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