By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Men's sports events, such as volleyball, in Iran are often exclusively male affairs as women are banned from even watching the contest. (file photo)
Iranian women are free to love sports, as long as they do it in the safety of their own homes.
Female fans got a harsh reminder of this when they attempted to cheer for their men's soccer and volleyball teams this week.
Women attempting to attend World League volleyball matches being held this month in Tehran learned from the national police chief that their presence "was not in the public interest," while a female lawmaker argued that women at sporting events was a source of "disrespect and rape in society."
In an added slight, it was made clear that women and televised World Cup soccer matches were not a good match either -- at least not in public. The authorities made that clear by preventing public screenings of the game, which could result in mixed crowds, and putting pressure on cafes and restaurants to not show the games.
The strong-arm tactic backfired, because women promptly and publicly defied the authorities' efforts by assembling at small businesses to watch games and in the streets to celebrate Iran's World Cup performance.
And, while Iranian men and foreign women enjoyed the June 20 volleyball match between Iran and Italy at Tehran's Azadi Stadium, security forces dealt harshly with a small group of Iranian women outside.
The women had gathered to protest a longstanding ban on female spectators at sports stadiums, earning them physical and verbal abuse and, for some, police detentions.
They did succeed in highlighting gender inequality and discrimination against women in Iran, however.
Women were banned from attending sports events after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the creation of the Islamic republic. Since then some exceptions have been made -- for example, during a 2006 World Cup qualifying game against Qatar played in Iran, and generally for volleyball and basketball games.
Hard-liners have claimed it is not inappropriate for women to attend such events, because men often use crude language and players wear shorts.
Some who oppose the ban -- including former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who in 2006 wrote to Iran's Physical Education Organization asking that women be allowed into stadiums -- have argued that the presence of women would improve the atmosphere at sporting events and push men to refine their behavior.
But Iran is not quite ready to lift the ban, apparently.
Playing With Rape
While in 2013 women were allowed to attend Volleyball World League games, fans who tried to buy tickets to league matches scheduled to be played in Tehran were told they would not be allowed. And while an exception had been made for women journalists, this month they too were barred.
Amid the ensuing outcry, female lawmaker Fatemeh Alia dismissed the idea of women spectators, saying their duty was to raise children and take care of their husbands, not to watch other men play volleyball.
"There is no reason for women to go to a venue where thousands of men have gathered," she said. "It [creates] the grounds for disrespect and rape in society."
Another female lawmaker, Sakineh Omrani, told payamno.com that women can watch sports matches at home, on television, if they wish, but not in stadiums "because while doing sports, men are not fully dressed."
Pouring salt in the wound is the fact that foreign women have been allowed to attend a series of Volleyball World League matches played in Tehran this month.
The indignity has attracted much attention, including from lawmaker Kamaledin Pirmoezen, who, after a mid-June series against Brazil said that "Iranian women, like Brazilian [women], should benefit from volleyball matches."
But bad news, accompanied by clarity regarding recent events, came on June 22. With Iran preparing for a second-leg match against Italy, it was announced that women journalists would be barred from attending World League contests for the rest of the month.
The same day, Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, explained that "in the current conditions, the mixing of men and women in stadiums is not in the public interest."
Ahmadi Moghadam also noted that Ahmadinejad's 2006 call for women to be allowed into sports stadiums had been opposed by senior clerics.
"The stance taken by religious scholars and the supreme leader remains unchanged, and as the enforcer of the law, we cannot allow women to enter stadiums," he said.
Where Is My Seat?
"Stadiums for all" read one sign at the small protest organized outside Azadi Stadium on June 20. "Women ask: Where is my seat?" read another.
That was enough to attract the strong arm of the law, with protesters and eyewitnesses saying that several of the women, their male supporters, and at least one journalist were forcefully detained.
Well-known journalist Jila Baniyaghoob is among the most vocal critics of the ban on women fans and sports correspondents.
"The Islamic republic once again violated its commitment regarding women's rights," she wrote recently on her Facebook page.
There has also been criticism in the Iranian media.
Earlier this month, entekhab.ir likened the ban on women at sports stadiums to Saudi Arabia's driving ban for women.
"It's a simple issue, an issue that is common, banal, and normal all over the world, but in Saudi Arabia it has become a security problem."
Outside Iran, activists such as Leila Mouri are making sure the world is aware of the gender games being played.
Mouri was a member of the "White Headscarves" campaign that was launched in Iran in the 1990s to push for the ban to be lifted.
Under the rallying cry, "Women's rights equal half the freedom," the campaign shot to fame when it forced the authorities to allow women to attend the 2006 World Cup qualifier played at Azadi Stadium.
Mouri, who left Iran in 2006 and is now based in New York, says the election of Iran's relatively moderate President Rohani has created a space for activists to renew their call.
"Women feel the [political] atmosphere is slightly more open, they feel they can repeat some of their past demands, at the same time because of the [successes] of Iran's volleyball team, women decided they want to enter the stadium.
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