The plan was to fly to the white, silky sands of Kish Island, a small coral resort island in the Persian Gulf, about 10 miles off the southern coast of Iran. There, Farah would attend an international beach volleyball tournament that was being held in Iran for the first time.
It was not a simple excursion. Farah was to be among the first women allowed inside a stadium in Iran to watch volleyball since 2012, when a law barring women from attending soccer games was expanded to include volleyball, which was growing in popularity. In 2014, a British-Iranian activist was jailed just for trying to attend a match. That’s why Farah, as an Iranian, is afraid to have her last name published.
“Honestly, I thought because here is a free-zone island, they would let women go there, but they did not, despite all the promises,” Farah wrote in an email. “It’s annoying that simple things like watching volleyball is a crime here.”
The international volleyball federation, known as the FIVB, an abbreviation for its French name, said it was only a “misunderstanding” that the women were not allowed into the stadiums during qualifying. An FIVB statement the next day, Wednesday, said that women “for the most part” were allowed to watch the men’s tournament, “a first in recent years.”
But in an email to me, Farah disputed that claim, saying that “they’re lying,” and that security forces were again posted at the gate. She said that it would be dangerous for her or other women even to try to gain entry. On Tuesday, after she had been turned away, Farah heard sounds from a nearby cafe where women were cheering the matches as they watched from the rooftop. So she joined them. On Wednesday, she again watched the matches from a nearby roof.
In the back and forth between the volleyball federation and Farah, though, I had to stop and think: Why are we even debating this?
It should not be a victory for volleyball that women “for the most part” were allowed entry into an event, or for an international sports body to claim that as a success.
The federation must recognize that women should be allowed to watch its sporting events, just as men are, and that it must hold accountable national federations and event organizers that bar them. Anything less than that violates the Olympic charter, which has a section on antidiscrimination, and also the volleyball federation’s own set of antidiscrimination rules.
If Iran cannot follow international standards for equality, then it should not be awarded international sporting events, like the one this week on Kish Island, or the Volleyball World League matches scheduled to be played this summer in Tehran.
But the federation seems deaf to this. It awarded the tournament on Kish Island and the World League matches to Iran last fall, only months after women were barred from World League matches last summer at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. (Contrarily, Azadi means “freedom” in Persian.)
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, called it “a bait and switch” that women were not allowed into last summer’s matches. Despite assurances from the international federation and Iran’s federation, “women who wanted to enter the stadium were threatened in such an ugly way,” Worden said. “Police were stationed around the stadium and were told to pull women out of cars.”
So when international federation awarded not one big tournament, but two, to Iran, Worden was perplexed.
“If one of my kids whacks his brother, would I say, ‘O.K., you can just watch all the TV you like’?” Worden said. “No, because someone shouldn’t be rewarded for doing something wrong. The FIVB has all the power here because Iran wants those matches. But the FIVB didn’t use it.”
On Monday, Richard Baker, a spokesman for the volleyball federation, said that its goal was for volleyball to be “the No. 1 family sport entertainment in the world” and that for Iran to host any more federation events the Iranians had to guarantee access for everybody.
Baker called that guarantee “a big deal.”
And, it is. Volleyball is not much of a family sport if the stands are filled only with fathers, brothers and sons.
The federation went on to say, in a statement, that it was concerned by events that occurred Tuesday when women tried to enter the stadium. Not because women were not allowed entry, though. It said it was investigating “allegations” that a large group of women arrived to watch the matches as part of “a politically motivated stunt.”
The federation assured reporters that there were women at the matches, though Open Stadiums said online photographs of those women showed credentials hanging from lanyards around their necks, implying they were officials, or official guests, at least.Whoever they were, those real, live women watched real, live men play real, live matches of volleyball. And real, live men were in the stands nearby. And the world did not end. The sport was richer for it.
Whatever happens the rest of the week, the bigger test for Iran will come this summer, far from Kish Island, which The New York Times has called “an oasis of luxury and laxity.”
If all women who want to attend the World League matches in Tehran are not allowed unfettered entry, it should be the last time Iran is awarded international volleyball matches. Three strikes, and they should be out.