Since 2012, Iranian women and girls have been barred from attending men’s volleyball tournaments. Though women have been protesting the ban for years, and some, like activist Ghoncheh Ghavami, have attempted to infiltrate the male-only spaces—facing year-long prison sentences for even trying to enter the stadium—little progress has been made. Frustrations over the ban are about more than sports: Like football and baseball in the United States, volleyball is a source of national pride. And barring women from fully participating in public life keeps them from achieving full equality.
Banning women from men’s sporting events is nothing new in Iran. Female soccer fans, for example, have been prohibited from spectating for decades; government officials cite the so-called “un-Islamic” nature of mixed attendance and the “threat” of exposing women to men’s crude behavior as justification for women’s exclusion. In 2015, the volleyball ban drew attention when the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), a FIFA-like governing body for volleyball, implicitly sanctioned Iranian women’s exclusion by pursuing contracts with Tehran’s Azadi Sports Complex to host international tournaments—and failing to call foul on Iran’s gender-discriminatory policy.
This summer, Azadi—which means “freedom”—presented the 2015 Asian Volleyball Championship as well as four men’s World League matches. Officials turned away all but a few non-Iranian women from the 12,000-capacity stadium, a direct violation of FIVB’s fourth “Fundamental Principle” of nondiscrimination enshrined in the organization’s constitution. The move drew the attention of Human Rights Watch, which last month launched a social media campaign in hopes of changing the game.
“With the #Watch4Women campaign, we seek to spotlight Iran’s ugly discrimination against women and girls,” said Minky Worden, HRW’s director of global initiatives. “Ending the ban preventing female spectators from attending volleyball matches would be a symbolically important step toward greater gender equality in Iran.”
This winter, Iran will be hosting FIVB’s 2016 beach volleyball tournament, and without the help of men and women around the world blowing the whistle, the country will undoubtably persist in its discriminatory practices. Using the hashtag #Watch4Women, Human Rights Watch is putting the ball in FIVB’s court, recruiting supporters from around the world to urge the sporting authority to cancel its event contracts with Iranian sports venues, such as Azadi, until the country’s sexist policy is repealed.
Said Worden, “It is time for the International Volleyball Federation to act to end this blatant discrimination, which violates its own rules and brings shame to the game.”
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