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Iranians Love Volleyball, But Half The Population Can't Attend Matches

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Melissa Jeltsen
VOLLEYBALL © Human Rights Watch VOLLEYBALL

Human Rights Watch is calling on Iran to allow its women to attend volleyball matches -- a right they had until three years ago. 

Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iranian women haven't been allowed to attend men's football matches. In 2012, that ban was extended to volleyball -- one of the country's most popular sports. 

In a new digital advocacy campaign called #Watch4Women, Human Rights Watch is turning the heat on the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), the sport's governing body, to exclude Iran from hosting future tournaments until women are allowed to go. 

The FIVB recently awarded Iran the beach volleyball World Tour open event, which will take place in February 2016. 

"In the modern sports era, there is an understanding that gender equality is central to fair play. The Olympic Charter enshrines this principle, and so does the FIVB's own constitution," said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. "Our position is that so long as Iran is not playing by the rules, then the government has not earned the right to host a major international tournament."

Women's exclusion from volleyball matches made international news last year, when Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian woman, was arrested after attempting to watch a men's volleyball match in Tehran. She has since been released. 

In an emailed statement, FIVB spokesman Richard Baker said the organization opposed Human Rights Watch "using sport as a proxy for a political agenda" and said they were committed to gender equality. 

The statement, in full: 

The FIVB is aware of the campaign to force the withdrawal of all international volleyball tournaments from Iran. The FIVB fully supports the principle of gender equality as enshrined in the Olympic Charter and our own statutes, but we strongly oppose Human Rights Watch’s methods in using sport as a proxy for a political agenda.

The FIVB and Human Rights Watch share a common objective which goes beyond a volleyball tournament: it is to make a contribution towards women taking a more equal role in all aspects of Iranian society. The FIVB condemned the imprisonment of Ghoncheh Ghavami and FIVB President Dr. Ary S. Graca F° personally lobbied the Iranian authorities for her release.

The FIVB has also publicly condemned the ban on women in volleyball stadiums in Iran. It is our firm belief that our objective is better served by having the eyes of the world on Iran during international sports events than by a boycott. Boycotts punish athletes more than anyone else, and history has shown that they do not work. Sport provides opportunities for dialogue and cooperation and the FIVB will continue to ensure that Iran remains enfranchised in the international sports community so that sport’s power as an agent for positive change can be fully utilised.

The FIVB will meet privately with Human Rights Watch at the earliest opportunity to see how we can work together to achieve our mutual objective. In the meantime, the international sports community can rest assured that the FIVB will continue our work in Iran to help create an inclusive and tolerant environment for volleyball and all sports.

Worden said FIVB's position would be reasonable if Iran was making progress, but the opposite is true. 

"There has been a 10-year effort by women rights activists in Iran to exercise their right to watch sports inside stadiums. In that time, instead of gaining more rights, their spaces have actually been restricted," she said. "If you were to go to a sports stadium anywhere the world and see a sign that said 'Whites Only,' there would be a big outcry. In Iran, the reality for Iranian women is that the signs effectively say 'Men Only.' That is not an acceptable situation." 

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women's health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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