Beach volleyball and women’s rights in Iran?

Editor’s Note: Minky Worden is director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch.

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

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:

wrn iran volleyball protester released iman ghavami intv_00004011.jpg
Iran's 'volleyball protester' out on bail
03:39 - Source: CNN-AP

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-