Hard to believe in this day and age but shockingly true: If you go to watch a men’s volleyball game in Iran, and are a woman, you can end up in jail for a year. This is what has happened to Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old woman from London with dual Iranian-British citizenship. On 20 June Ghavami, along with a dozen or so like-minded women, attempted to enter Azadi Stadium in Tehran to watch the Volleyball World League match between Iran and Italy. What the women tried to do is illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah in 1979, one of the measures he imposed was a ban on women at football matches. In 2012, the ban was extended to volleyball games as well. In the thinking of Iran’s theocrats, such a ban is necessary in order to protect women from the lewd behaviour of the male fans at sporting events. (I suppose it never occurred to Iran’s leaders to deal with the lewd male behaviour). Only one other country bans women from male sporting events and that other country, not surprisingly, is Saudi Arabia. Oh, and the women were guilty of breaking a second law that day: They wore white hijabs or headscarves when Iranian law required dark-coloured hijabs.
Ghavami and the other women were arrested outside Azadi Stadium, allegedly beaten, and then released. When Ghavami went back to retrieve items of hers that had been confiscated, she was rearrested when her dual citizenship became known, and she was put on trial. Now languishing in solitary confinement in the notorious Evin Prison and on a dry-hunger strike [no liquids], Ghavami apparently is unaware yet of the one-year prison sentence imposed by Iran’s judiciary. Her incarceration and sentence have nothing to do with attending a volleyball match, Iran claims; rather, Ghavami is guilty of “propagating against the ruling system,” of “spreading anti-regime propaganda.”
Iran’s judiciary claims its ban on women at male sporting events is all about protecting women. This is the same judiciary that has set the legal age of marriage for girls in Iran at age 13 and allows girls as young as 9 to be married off with permission from a court. In 2012, at least 1,537 marriages of girls under 10 years of age were registered. The girls were given in marriage to males at least ten years older in age than they. Legislation has also been ratified that allows an Iranian man to marry his adopted daughter. Some protection of women!
Outside Iran, Ghavami’s prison sentence has been met with shock, disbelief, and outrage. The Volleyball World League (FIVB) has sent a letter to His Excellency Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran, but has yet to receive a reply. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has sent a letter to the National Olympic Committee of Iran, but there has been no response so far. Letters are a start, but just a start. International sporting associations must take a stand against gender discrimination and ban any country-member that imprisons or penalizes anyone–whether male or female–for attending, or simply trying to attend as in Ghavami’s case, one of their sporting events. Until Ghavami is released, Iran should be ousted from all international sporting associations.
Until Ghavami’s imprisonment, I had never considered the freedom to attend a sporting event–regardless of one’s gender–as one of our treasured freedoms in the West. I was at a football game this past weekend. It was cold and rainy, and the match went into overtime. I was so cold that I just wanted the game to end–I no longer cared which team won. But I didn’t let on. I hooted and hollered along with the rest of the spectators. There were no ‘lewd’ men to be seen anywhere, just men totally focused on the game. Must have been the weather.