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Iran: How the discussion about women’s presence in stadiums can teach us feminist lessons

At the end of August 2014 with the beginning of the men’s volleyball world championships, a sad news story surfaced in Iranian social media communities stating that a young woman named Ghoncheh Ghavami had been arrested.  Ghavami was detained on June 20th at Azadi (“Freedom” in Farsi) stadium where female fans held a brief demonstration after being told they could not enter the stadium to watch a men’s volleyball match. She was released within hours but was rearrested days later at a police station she had visited to reclaim items confiscated from her near the stadium.  The news was shocking; we had seen that special forces were not letting women get close to the stadium entrances on match days, but no one had considered that it might put you in jail for a long time.

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Ghoncheh Ghavami was arrested on the 20th of June after protesting women be allowed to attend volleyball matches.

During the world championship in Poland some spectators wore shirts in solidarity with Iranian women which said: "let Iranian women enter their stadiums".  It was also one of the main discussions between Iranian fans and Persian media; it was pointed out that it was ridiculous that women were being banned from stadiums in Iran considering the Iranian embassy staff were all attending the matches in Poland with their families, including their wives and female relatives.  In response to Ghoncheh’s case, some fans made posters with her name, and attached them to the Polish stadium benches to express solidarity with her.

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Iranian women display their wish for equality and their solidarity with Ghoncheh Ghavami at the World Volleyball Championships in Poland, September 2014. Copyright @openStadiums.

All these talks, posters, and shirts did not go unnoticed by the FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball).  In the FIVB’s annual assembly in Italy, their president released a statement about Ghoncheh’s detentions, saying “women throughout the world should be allowed to watch and participate in volleyball on an equal basis”.  Soon after this statement, the FIVB took away Iran’s right to host the Boys' Under-19 World Volleyball Championships, in response to Iran’s ban on women spectators.  The FIVB weren’t fooled by the Iranian volleyball federation’s trick of bringing some VIP women to matches and using this as evidence that women were allowed to attend!

Until recently we had not seen a significant reaction from Iranian spectators, but with news of the FIVB’s action against Iran, one of the most liked Facebook pages about Iranian volleyball reacted with the following: “Why is women’s presence so important?  If you had not written to the FIVB we would not have lost the hosting of the tournament.  You have made a problem for our national team... Who is this Ghoncheh Ghavami?  These are all political games causing Iran to lose the hosting, and you are cooperating with them...”  This Facebook status started a big discussion, maybe for first time, between Iranian fans about importance of women’s presence in stadiums.  Many fans stated that they will unlike the page since it reproduces discrimination towards women. Their first status had more than 600 comments, they posted a second status about this, and after the wave of unlikes they removed all their posts about it in November.  But even now in many of their posts women and many men (which is surprising) are expressing their disappointment that women are banned from matches.

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Side note: around this time one of the writers of an Iranian comedy show wrote a Facebook status about a former model in Italy that now is a football referee, used very sexist tone and almost every vulgar word which you would hear in a football stadiums towards her (these vulgar words are part of the justification for women not being allowed to attend football matches!).  However, he covered this sexism with his usual irony, and since he has lots of famous friends and fans many people laughed at the status until feminists reacted strongly to it. 

So we had two different examples of gender discrimination happening at the same time, and the Iranian facebook community for couple of days was alive with discussion about these two statuses, and opinions of women and sexism.

My lessons from these two Facebook status and their two almost opposite reactions, was firstly that when women used to have a right and then lose it they feel discrimination more sharply.  For example, women’s entrance to football stadiums has been banned for 35 years, so people are used to it and would question a woman’s desire to enter one.  But people do not question women wanting to go to volleyball matches as this was only banned three years ago.  People feel the injustice more.  My lesson is therefore that we must keep bringing injustice and discrimination to the forefront of people’s minds so they do not forget it or normalise it.

We should not let go and be quiet about our rights, because our lack of rights are starting to become ordinary – if we keep quiet it will become even harder for feminists to make people recognise gender discrimination.  It does not matter if people are educated or not, everyday sexism can be reproduced by anyone and it is important for us to react to them, because it wakes them up, and keeps our objections to discrimination alive. 

It sometimes feels like we have reached a point where “elite/educated” Iranian internet users think they are aware of everything and changing their mind about sexism can be very difficult.  Nonetheless, the response to discrimination has not been in vain; with all the letter and petitions from the public, and the support given by the FIVB, Ghoncheh Ghavami was released on bail in November 2014, although her fate is still uncertain until after the appeal hearing.  The public and influential organisations like the FIVB must continue to stand with Iranian women in demanding their rights, and must advocate for Ghavami’s freedom until it is guaranteed.

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The author is an Iranian activist who has been trained by the WELDD programme.

Related Links:

Sign the petition to free Ghoncheh Ghavami

Open Stadiums campaign on Twitter 

White Scarves campaign on Facebook 

Political and Public Participation
Culturally Justified Violence Against Women