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?

          9 Min.

          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.”  

          The rise of the Iranian volleyball team began seven or eight years ago. A second-place finish at the 2009 Asian championship was followed by the 2011 victory in Tehran, described by Sara. The players were hailed as heroes, the games became an event for Iranians of both genders, some got caught in a volleyball frenzy. These days, on weekends in Tehran, Thursday nights, Fridays at dusk, it is hard to find a park without pick-up games of volleyball going on. Men and women play, as do boys and girls. They play, and they play together. The green spots in this megalopolis with its 12 or 14 million people turn into sporting grounds, and the air, often enough polluted, emanates a joie de vivre in these hours that seems to put the cliché of the joyless empire of the mullah to rest.

          Joie de vivre: Pick-up volleyball in a Tehran park on April 2, 2015, the Sizdeh bedar holiday

          The conservatives however, who are very fond of this cliché, and who are very much alive, became fed up with the joy that their people found in watching sport together.  And so in 2012 and up to this day, women were not only barred from soccer stadiums, but also from volleyball tournaments. And while the conservatives in Iran were very content with this situation, yet another sports federation broke its own rules, the non-discrimination clause set out in the Sixth Fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter. Yet, Iran's discriminatory policy did not prevent the Asian nor the International Volleyball federation from awarding Tehran international events.

          The 2015 Asian championship was played in the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran's western parts. The complex is another of Mohammad Reza Shah’s great plans. The 1984 Olympic Games were supposed to be hosted on the premises that he had called Aryamehr Complex, in his own honour. The revolution extinguished the light of the Aryans and the complex, with its soccer stadium and indoor sports arena, was renamed - „Azadi“ („Freedom“) complex. And yet the international federation, the FIVB, that states in its own constitution that it „shall not discriminate between  individuals” allowed the Iranian men’s national team play its FIVB World League Games in this arena. Azadi? Freedom? Not for women. Not at football games. Nor at volleyball games.

          Very much alive: Conservative demonstrators calling to uphold the ban for women prior to the 2015 World League matches in Tehran

          Minky Worden, Director for Global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, is one of those who deems it scandalous that the FIVB has now awarded the Iranian federation the right to host its beach volleyball tournament. “They break their own rules”, Worden says. Compare this for example to what would happen in the case of doping.”

          The FIVB sent the F.A.Z. this answer by email: “The FIVB is in regular contact with the local authorities in Iran to ensure that families have access to the Kish Island Open event in Iran. The organisers confirmed at the FIVB World Tour Council meeting that there will be free access to the public.”

          So who will be free to to attend the matches on Kish Island? What is the definition of a „family“?  And does free access to the public entail free access for all women? Richard Baker, the FIVB’s communications director, confirmed by phone, that the organisers have confirmed that no one will be barred at the turnstiles. A small volleyball revolution in Iran then, on Kish Island?

          Not so fast. Baker added that the “regular contact with local authorities” referred to regular contact with the Iranian Federation who is organising the tournament. Apparently, the world body is unable to penetrate Tehran’s political circles. But politicians control the laws of the country, not the Iranian volleyball federation. An Iranian journalist in Tehran observed: „It is not up to the Iranian federation to decide on women in the arenas, not even to the sports minister. The national security council has to approve.” And even if that is done, nothing may change. “It only takes a disapproving mullah in Qom”, he added with regard to the theological centre of the Iranian Shiites, where politics are still made.

          Conservatives took to the streets

          Indeed, Mohamad Reza Davarzani, president of the Iranian Volleyball federation had promised very similar things ahead of the World League games last year. In the spring of 2015, he made pledges to the FIVB and the women’s rights group. Sara wrote: “Some women went to Davarzani’s office. He promised he would find a way to get them into the arena if they did not make a fuss ahead of the matches.” Entry to Azadi hall in return for the promise not to take to the streets?  “In my experience, it was a lie and a trick”, Sara added.

          But even Shahindokht Molaverdi, Vice President in President Hasan Rouhani’s cabinet, had promised a reversal of the laws on discrimination against women in volleyball, basketball, team handball, and tennis. But this led the conservatives to take to the streets. They staged demonstrations in Tehran, denounced female spectators wanting to watch men’s matches, called  entry for women at these sports „the advancement of prostitution“ – and won. No female spectators were allowed to attend the World League matches against the United States, apart from foreigners traveling with their team.

          Supporting their heroes: The male crowd at Azadi complex during the 2015 World League matches between Iran and the United States

          Shahindokht Molaverdi, a reformist in Rouhani’s government that came to power after the 2013 presidential election, posted on Facebook: A “crowd of sanctimonious people who published one pamphlet after another denouncing the modest and decent girls and women of this land” had “used obscene and disgusting insults that only befit themselves”.

          This generated some headlines, but as Sara wrote: “I tried to point out the mistakes: a vice-president does not have the power to let us into the arenas.” The conservative demonstrators, some of them members of the Basij, the unofficial militia run by the Revolutionary Guards, who had violently suppressed the protests after the 2009 presidential election, had threatened to turn the arenas into pits of blood, if women were allowed to attend. Molaverdi, said the Iranian journalist, got “worn down” by the conservatives. At Azadi complex, it was business as usual during the World League matches. No entry. No freedom.

          The tattoo non-starter

          But during the fall of 2015, President Rouhani showed his willingness to stand up to the conservatives in the sporting federations, at least to some extent. After the female indoor soccer team was told by its own federation there was no money to send them to Guatemala for the Futsal World Tournament, Rouhani decreed the team was allowed to travel.

          And the idea to denounce Sardar Azmoun and Ashkan Dejagah, a Berlin-born soccer player, for their tattoos in front of the soccer federation's in-house ethics commission backfired in spectacular fashion. The federation's ethics chief was blamed for the “negative reports in foreign media”. The times seemed ripe for a chat with reformists and moderates on the issue of women in sports.

          „Women share half the freedom“: Protest at an international soccer game between Iran and Bosnia-Hercegovina in Tehran 2006

          Yet, the FIVB awarded Davarsani’s federation with the right to host the beach volleyball event, even though he had broken his promise to the FIVB also. At the same time, the international body tirelessly promotes its goal to have families at volleyball matches. One of the FIVB’s goals is to turn the game into the „No.1 sports entertainment in the world for families“ by 2020. As if this somehow compensates for the discrimination of single women or widows or women who just feel like watching a match with a girlfriend.

          The FIVB is now consulting with an expatriate Iranian woman. And Richard Baker says, he „should think“ the federation would revise its policy if the Iranians were not true to their word on Kish.

          „Dear volleyball fan“

          Minky Worden deplores the situation for Iranian women under the current laws. “Women are somehow supposed to find out if they get in or get arrested? Volleyball is supposed to be fun and exciting. If the excitement is down to the question whether you get arrested or not, that’s not fun at all. It’s an Olympic year. Gender equality is one of IOC president Thomas Bach’s central issues. The FIVB’s policy to reward rule breakingessentially runs counter to Bach’s Olympic agenda 2020.”

          Indeed, Bach’s International Olympic Committee is not delighted by the FIVB. In 2014, the FIVB’s president, Ary Graça of Brazil, had replied to a letter by Open Stadiums: “Dear Volleyball fan, I thank you for your e-mail concerning the refusal of the authorities to allow women to enter the Azadi stadium to watch the World League match in Teheran. I am pleased to note your interest and the interest of many Iranian women in our beloved sport. For your information, this issue will be on the agenda of the World League council at its meeting next month and will therefore be discussed by its members.”

          But Graça had not replied directly to Open Stadiums, he had sent his mail to the Iranian Labour News Agency. Sara and her friends felt as if Graça tried to sell them down the river. A sentiment intensifying by the month in the absence of further feedback from the FIVB, although the Iranian women sent the FIVB hundreds of alerts.

          The IOC is well informed on the matter, with Olympic Games director Christophe Dubi taking particular interest in the issue. But the IOC’s public statements must be meticulously vivisected to extract the criticism: “The IOC is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation as stated in the Olympic Charter. The IOC encourages all its stakeholders, including International Federations, to uphold the principles of the Olympic Charter at their own events, which they are running autonomously. We understand that the FIVB is following up closely on this issue and has received assurances from local organisers in Iran that the events of the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour to be held in February in Kish Islands will be open to all’, an IOC spokesperson wrote. Pressure? Well, yes. In the mildest dose possible.

          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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