Beach volleyball and women's rights in Iran?

Story highlights

  • Minky Worden: Iran will host prestigious volleyball tournament; but women banned from watching. This violates FIVB rules
  • Iran has jailed women for watching, she says. Iran may qualify for Olympics: FIVB and Olympic committee must demand end to ban

Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

(CNN)Beach volleyball is testing women's rights in Iran.

Yes, beach volleyball in Iran. You may think that women's rights there are a secondary issue, compared with recent headlines focusing on a nuclear agreement, the freeing of the Washington Post's correspondent in Tehran and other prisoners, and an almost-international incident when American sailors veered into Iranian waters.
    Minky Worden
    But in fact, this issue goes to the heart of whether Iran upholds its international agreements.
    Later this month, Iran will host a prestigious international beach volleyball tournament on Kish Island, south of the mainland in the Persian Gulf. This is a first for Iran, which was selected as the host country by the Lausanne-based International Volleyball Federation, or FIVB.
    The problem is that Iran bans women from attending volleyball matches (indeed, women have been also banned since 1979 from watching soccer in stadiums). This is in clear violation of the 4th Fundamental Principle of the Volleyball Federation's own constitution and the Olympic Charter, both of which promise nondiscrimination.
    It also represents a missed opportunity:
    Iran's 'volleyball protester' out on bail
    Iran's 'volleyball protester' out on bail


      Iran's 'volleyball protester' out on bail


    Iran's 'volleyball protester' out on bail 03:39
    Iran's national volleyball team has become one of the world's best, and the sport has spiked in popularity in the country. The upcoming men's beach volleyball tournament could be a celebratory occasion not just on the volleyball courts but also for equality in Iran — if authorities reverse the discriminatory ban keeping women out of matches.
    The irony is that volleyball was once an established public space for women, who could attend men's matches in Iran until 2012, when the decision was made to ban them, without any clear explanation. Since then, gathering online and outside stadiums during the volleyball matches, Iranian women have tried to reverse this ban. Their efforts led to harassment and even arrest.
    In 2014, Iranian authorities arrested Ghoncheh Ghavami and some 20 others when they sought to attend a Volleyball World League match at Tehran's Azadi ("Freedom") Stadium complex. They were released soon afterward, but Ghavami was rearrested and charged with "propaganda against the state." She was held in the city's notorious Evin Prison, including a stretch in solitary confinement, for nearly five months.
    Across Iran, women face significant discrimination in law and in practice, as well as restrictions on exercising their rights. Given the repressive environment activists face every day there, women behind campaigns like @OpenStadiums have taken enormous risks to demand their right to watch sports in public.
    Last June, Iran hosted the Volleyball Federation's World League matches. In a demoralizing bait-and-switch, women were first promised they could attend the international tournament, then yet again threatened and excluded. However, the FIVB did not raise a public stink, even when only men were allowed to buy tickets and police were stationed around Azadi Stadium to stop any women who might try to get in.
    Iranian women watch World Cup in public
    Iranian women watch World Cup in public


      Iranian women watch World Cup in public


    Iranian women watch World Cup in public 02:50
    One would think such blatant rule-breaking by the Iranians would cause the FIVB to rescind or cancel Iran's hosting privileges; even FIFA, soccer's international governing organization, says Iran can't host its tournaments until women can attend.
    Instead, the Volleyball Federation awarded Iran another two volleyball tournaments: the Kish Island FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, from February 15-19, and Tehran's World League matches in June 2016.
    So that sets the volleyball gender equality calendar for the year, and gives the international federation two more chances to use its enormous leverage to insist that Iran must play by the rules.
    With the country's national volleyball obsession, the Kish Island Open, the upcoming June World League matches in Tehran, and the Iranian volleyball team's possible qualification for the Rio Olympics in August, the FIVB and the International Olympic Committee must act: They need to draw a line in the sand and insist that the formal ban preventing women from watching matches be reversed.
    Human Rights Watch has written to Mahmoud Goudarzi, Iran's minister of sport and youth, and met with FIVB representatives, who say headway can be made on the "key aim" of "families being able to attend volleyball matches."
    General Director Fabio Azevedo has said he is hopeful the ban would be lifted before the Kish Island competition. But where does that leave Iranian women?
    Hopeful? That is not enough. Iran promised last June that female fans could attend matches, only to renege and threaten them before the tournament, dashing the hopes of women waiting to return to stadiums.
    Watching volleyball is supposed to be fun and exciting. If there is some question about whether you get arrested, that's not fun at all, and it's not a risk Iranian women should have to bear.
    Now is the time for the FIVB to tell Iran watching volleyball is no crime for women, and insist on a formal overturning of the ban. The Kish Island Open should not be closed to women.
    The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.