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Persistent Iranian Women's Movement Chipping Away at State Ban on Females in Sports Stadiums

CHRI - The peaceful battle by women's rights activists geared towards ending the ban on female spectators in Iranian sports stadiums is inching forward despite ongoing opposition by religious conservatives.

Women watching Iran-Belgium volleyball match in Tehran in June 2017
(photo by ISNA)

"Women's rights activists are pursuing this matter from every direction, but athletic officials are asking us to allow change to happen gradually without a ruckus," journalist and civil rights advocate Saba Sherdoust told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in a recent interview.

"The fact is that women have shown their resilience and nothing will stop them from reaching for their rights," she said. "We are serious in our demand from the government to remove restrictions on women in arenas."

While no laws or regulations prohibit female fans from watching sports from within Iranian stadiums, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution successive governments have bowed to Shia religious conservatives who have opposed mixed-crowds in the arenas.

The unofficial ban was initially limited to men's soccer matches, but in 2012 it was extended to men's indoor volleyball matches.

On June 9, 2017, less than a month after President Hassan Rouhani's re-election, the ban on women in sports stadiums was somewhat relaxed to allow the female relatives of members of the Iranian men's volleyball team to watch a match against Belgium at Azadi Arena in Tehran.

"Last year, [Iran's] volleyball federation allocated 10 seats for female fans," Sherdoust told CHRI. "This year, they allocated 300. Of course, it was only a selective group of women, but the authorities said they would increase the number in small steps until the restriction is eventually removed."

Iran's volleyball federation's website initially offered tickets in the women's section for the FIVB World Volleyball League match between Iran and Belgium on June 9 in Tehran, but those who showed up with tickets were turned away because their seats were assigned to the Iranian players' female relatives.

Some opined that the brief reprieve from the ban was only intended to appease the FIVB and avoid a ban on Iran from hosting future international matches.

"Tricking the world federation to escape exclusion from hosting games was an insult to our women and an affront to our cultural and athletic values," the Jahan-e Sanat reformist website commented in an editorial on June 11.

We pretend to sell tickets, but we don't," it continued. "We pretend men and women have equal rights. We pretend to care about women."

Religious conservatives meanwhile responded angrily to the presence of Iranian women in the stands at the June 9 match.

"We object to the Ministry of Sports and Youth for violating civil and religious laws in allowing hundreds of girls and women into a recent men's volleyball match," said a statement by the radical Hezbollah Coordination Council on June 17.

Hossein Allahkaram, the group's leader, posted a banner on his Instagram page on June 16 warning sport authorities that his followers would "fire at will" to prevent women from entering arenas at volleyball games.

Allahkaram was following Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's directive to his supporters on June 7 to "fire at will" when they perceive the government of President Hassan Rouhani of failing to act according to so-called revolutionary principles.

"We are well aware that (conservative) extremist groups and some religious leaders are close-minded when it comes to women's presence in society," women's rights advocate Sherdoust told CHRI. "They try to close every opening created by women and the government."

"On the other hand, Mr. Rouhani has often emphasized using women's full potential," she added.

Sherdoust, who writes on women's rights issues for reformist websites including Iran Global, added: "Women who took part in Rouhani's [May 2017 election] campaign rally in Shiroudi Stadium in Tehran carried signs that read, 'Can we come back to the stadium?'"

"This shows our demand has gained general appeal and in return, opponents are becoming more vocal, too," she added.

CHRI wrote a letter to Rouhani in June 2015 calling on him "to ensure full female participation as spectators" by "immediately repealing the ban on women's attendance at sports stadiums and events in place since 2012."

FIVB's "Fundamental Principles" forbid member nations from deploying discriminatory practices during volleyball matches.

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