Iran, #LetWomenGoToStadium

Gender equality has come into heated debate once again in Iran, this time pin pointed over restrictions on women to attend sporting events. The social media campaign #LetWomenGoToStadium was launched after the injustice faced by Iranian women, who were refused entry to watch an international volleyball match on Friday 19th June. The Iran vs. US match played in Tehran’s Azadi (meaning freedom) stadium ended with an Iranian 3-0 victory, but only defeat can be used to describe this case of Iranian women’s efforts for gender equality.

Since the 1979 revolution, women’s freedoms have become restricted and heavily enforced, most commonly known from the law requiring women to cover themselves in public under Islamic dress code. But here, the issue over volleyball is an entirely different ball game- women up until a few days before the Iran-US match, were assured they would be able to watch matches, countering the ban in place since 2013. More recently, Rouhani’s more moderate government have tried to relax restrictions on women attending sports events, an example being women attending a male basketball match just last month.

Shahindokht Molaverdi, the Iranian Vice President for Women’s and Family Affairs told an Iranian newspaper on 1st June, that a document had been authorised allowing women to watch the volleyball matches. This was reiterated on Iranian state television the same day. What seemed upcoming, hopeful progress for Iran’s women, was soon met with persistent conservative backlash. Senior clerics and hardliners oppose women’s presence at male volleyball matches (which also applies to other sports) due to their exposure to the crowd’s foul language and revealing sports clothing of the male players. Molaverdi however, quoted in the Telegraph, argued ‘women’s presence and getting families into stadiums will create a sense of formality that can definitely moderate the atmosphere of stadiums and give it a moral spirit.’ For women to be banned from sporting events due to ill-mannered male spectators also seems incredibly contradictory and unjust.

Hardliners refused to stand down. The religious group Ansar-e Hezbollah promoted flyers across Tehran in the lead up to the game, likening female fans to ‘prostitutes’ and called supporters to prevent women in entering the stadium for the game. Even more shocking was the threat of using violence to do so.

The Federation of International Volleyball (FIVB) had called upon Iran to ensure gender equality for spectators, threatening to stop the country from hosting tournaments unless it complied. The FIVB were assured some tickets could be bought by Iranian women holding specific ID cards, with 200 tickets printed especially for women spectators. Yet only two days before the match, going back on their word, Iran’s Volleyball Federation announced women were no longer allowed to attend Friday’s game.

Eyewitnesses told International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, that security forces and agents were everywhere surrounding the streets by the stadium. They were turning cars with female drivers or passengers away, even those not wishing to go to the match. ISNA news reported how female journalists were also denied entry. Eyewitnesses relayed the concerns of women of a Ghoncheh Ghavami repeat. The British-Iranian woman last year was sentenced to five months in prison for protesting to watch the Iran-Italy game at the Azadi stadium. Iranian officials however maintain her charges were not to do with volleyball but propaganda against the state and contact with opposition groups.

Molaverdi expressed her outrage and publicly criticised the government in a statement on her Facebook page, in reaction to the turn of events. The Vice President condemned those in power and groups working against women’s attendance of sport, stating ‘we walk by bigger vices and bend our heads.’ With this, she referred to the 5,000 homeless women on the streets of Tehran and rising drug addiction statistics. President Rouhani himself has previously expressed the problems with women’s rights in Iran, and emphasised that men and women should be acknowledged on an equal footing. Whilst women’s position in Iranian society is notably progressing, for example percentage of females in universities and increased political participation- a significant problem always comes back to the entrenched hardliners resistance. 

In the ongoing battle for gender equality, promising statements from Rouhani yesterday at a judicial convention in Tehran, again makes room for hope. The President has proposed working on a bill to create more transparency within judicial decisions on defining political crimes. Hopefully, Rouhani’s intentions will have the political calibre to improve the position of political activists, women’s rights activists and journalists who so often are convicted on distorted charges.

Whilst these promises have yet to be developed, IWI supports Iranian women in their campaign to attend sporting events and all their other calls for equality. We also call on the government to listen to Iran’s women, and advance their efforts in progressing meaningful gender equality. To show your support for Iranian women, carry on the Twitter trend #LetWomenGoToStadium.