• Iranian women making the most of open stadiums in Australia during the 2015 Asian Cup (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
At what point does a sporting organisation have a moral obligation to stand up for women's rights – even if that stand will make no discernible difference?
James McGrath

21 Jun 2016 - 2:54 PM  UPDATED 29 Jun 2016 - 8:32 AM

It's the question facing world volleyball body, the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) as it prepares to to stage a World League event in Tehran, next month.

July's event is what FIVB calls a “litmus test” of its response to an ongoing ban on women entering volleyball stadiums in Iran brought into effect in 2012.

This isn’t a situation totally unique to Iran and many women there find the stadium ban totally appropriate.

The FIVB's response to the ban has become a study in whether a sporting organisation can play a role in Iran and what approach should be taken to ensure advancement on the issue.

International organisations have campaigned on the issue abroad while inside Iran courageous women have challenged the status quo head on.


When British-Iranian activist Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2014 along with 20 other people, she was forced to spend 151 days in the notorious Evin prison for trying to attend a volleyball match.

The FIVB threatened to not award Iran any further events until its policy changed. It would go on to award three more.

Even FIFA has a ban on tournaments in Iran while women are not allowed into stadiums.

The FIVB says an outright ban would punish players and fans in that country while doing little to actually solve the core injustice.

It's about building bridges not building walls for the FIVB. Anti-discrimination is enshrined in the body's constitution but so is the promise to “refrain from any involvement in political, religious, philosophical or racial matters.”

FIVB spokesperson, Richard Baker, told Zela it negotiated access for women at an event in 2015 but was stopped by threats demonstrating the sheer weight of the issue.

“They [the Iranian volleyball federation] promised access to more women a year ago but then local religious and cultural groups came out and put pressure on the federation,” Baker said.

"These groups said there would be blood on the streets if women were allowed to go to the event.”

Despite the threats to women, the FIVB still went ahead with the event.

To activists, this was proof sporting events should not be held in Iran until the rights of women to attend stadiums safely was in play. And it's not the only incident.

The Kish conundrum

Kish Island is largely a legacy from the pre-revolution days; Shah Mohammed Reza Phalavi's attempt to build a Las Vegas style resort island and pump much needed US currency into the country.

There are mixed accounts of what happened during a beach volleyball event held there sanctioned by the FIVB earlier this year. 

The FIVB managed to set up a dedicated women's section of the event after negotiations with those on the ground and the Iranian volleyball federation.

There were women inside the stadium during the event particularly at the beginning and the end but whether they were wives and family members of officials rather than 'genuine' volleyball fans is where the story differs. 

“We had some progress, albeit limited, but there was progress at Kish Island,” Baker insisted.

“You saw protest groups trying to enter, and that's where it caused complications again, and then at the end of the tournament we were able to allow access to women to a dedicated space.”

Human Rights Watch campaign manager Minky Worden had a different interpretation of who the women were trying to enter.  

On the second day of the event, a group of Iranian women who traveled to be there were denied entry by security. 

She told Zela that a group of Iranian women traveled to be at the event but were turned away by on-ground security. 

To activists like Worden seeking full and unfettered access for women into stadiums, the event was a complete failure rather than progress. It charged the FIVB with naiveté in handing security duties to the local federation.

“For an international sport federation, naiveté isn’t an option, especially when your events have been at the center of human rights abuses before,” Worden said.

“If even one woman is threatened or turned away, your tournament is not a success.

“Based on the track record of Iran’s federation, this [the turning away of women] was entirely predictable and preventable.”

The event was part of the FIVB's more incremental approach in trying to affect change within Iran where the political structure makes social change is hard to come by.

A political, social, and religious minefield

To understand the social, political, and religious minefield volleyball and the fight for women's rights in Iran is navigating, an understanding of Iran's political situation is necessary. 

Iran has two power centres: the presidency, which appears to be the head of state to western audiences and the Supreme Leader, who is for all intents and purposes the actual head of state within Iran.

When current president Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013, the people in Iran and the western community hoped he would tread a more liberal social line. But this has been left on the backburner.

Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh from Deakin University told Zela while Rouhani more than likely has the best of intentions he has run into the amount of power the Ayatollah-backed conservative faction has in the country.

“I think he [Rouhani] actually believed in what he was saying during the election but he is a practical politician,” Akbarzadeh said.

“The unspoken agreement between them is he gets a bit of leeway on the nuclear issue and as a result revives Iran's economy. At the same time he steps back from pushing on the social agenda.”

Powerful conservative factions, those calling for literal bloodshed if women were allowed into stadiums, control the judiciary and the head of state i.e. the military and police force.

The question is what role would an issue such as the allowance of women into stadiums to watch volleyball matches actually have?

This is the complexity Baker says critics of the FIVB's approach perhaps haven't quite grasped.

“Yes I think that's one of the issues [people don't appreciate how complex the situation is] It's a very complex situation – in the sense there are so many different groups inside the country,” he said.

Like Baker, Akbarzadeh says the likely result of allowing women free access into stadiums immediately would, sadly, more than likely be violence.

“The backlash would be some level of violence in the streets, especially attacks on women who were attending games...women will bear the brunt” Akbarzadeh said.

Activists make the point it is because of this untenable political and social situation the FIVB should withdraw events from Iran entirely if it can not guarantee safe access for women.

“The test of whether you uphold gender equality is not whether you say you do, or if you do so when it is easy. The test is what you do to defend women and women’s rights when it’s hard,” Worden said.

Would a ban actually make a difference?

The FIVB has been trying to play diplomat in the hopes it can change the very delicate situation by degrees, but it's also been accused of wanting its cake and eating it too.

“We believe by providing events inside the country we're giving people a voice to raise this issue so this puts pressure on the country's officials to try and change this ban on women attending,” Baker said.

He added the FIVB is “not actively telling the story” on the fight for social equality in Iran.

It has put itself between a rock and a hard place and practically speaking it's tough to see a way forward.

Baker said the FIVB sees the July tournament as a “litmus test” of its approach so far and it would be conducting a review of the tournament afterward.

At this stage the FIVB is pushing for “family space” at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran. If women are allowed unfettered access to this space, it would certainly count as progress on the issue.

If the approach fails and the FIVB decides to take its ball and go home, would it do anything to improve the lot of women in Iran?

Azkarbadeh said there were simply too many variables to chart how it would play out.

“The conservatives will say it's another example of western imperialism and the west trying to impose its decadent values on us, and the more liberal-minded will say Iran is being more and more isolated from the international community,” he said.

“It's certainly playing into something much bigger than just volleyball.”

For activists though, enough is enough.

“The FIVB has an obligation to insist Iran plays by the rules, and if a federation cannot deliver on the rules, then there need to be consequences,” Worden said.

Iranian woman sneaks into football game, posts it on Instagram
Heavy face paint, a red cap and baggy clothing seems to have done the trick.