There’s a very big game in Tehran on Friday: Iran versus the United States of America in the 2015 World League volleyball competition that eventually will determine the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball’s world champion. Even though it’ll be men against men, it’s a sport that attracts a lot of women competitors and a lot of women fans in Iran. So it’s unfortunate that women and girls may be shut out of the stadium altogether … again.
The usual arguments have been reignited, with fans calling for their rights to be upheld and hardliners warning that Islamic values are at risk. But this time around the conservative opposition has made some truly outlandish claims. Letting women into sports stadiums, they claim, promotes prostitution.
Hamed Vasfi, a 56-year-old clergyman, is head of the Iravani Seminary and author of the book on how women should dress: Hejab According to the Quran. He’s been part of a campaign, teamed up with Ansar-e-Hezbollah (“Supporters of the Party of God”) to ban females from the stands.
I asked him why he objected. “The presence of women in stadiums is against the laws of sharia, and all religious authorities have issued edicts on this,” said Vasri. “The presence of women in stadiums promotes prostitution and leads to moral corruption. We have examples. Pictures published from women in stadiums clearly show this.” Precisely what pictures had moved him to that conclusion, he didn’t say. (Presumably not the NFL Cheerleaders’ Facebook page.)
But the relatively moderate government of President Hassan Rouhani may decide to ignore such rants.
Friday’s game will take place at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. On June 10, the Iranian vice president for women’s affairs, Shahindokht Molavardi, confirmed that 500 women—most of whom have family members taking part in the game—would be allowed into the stadium. She formally reiterated a statement to that effect she had given to Shargh newspaper on June 1.
This being Iran, and bureaucrats being cautious, representatives from other government agencies have denied that any decision has been reached on the matter.
The debate over female sports fans in stadiums, contentious and divisive as it is, dates back to the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and gets rekindled every time Iran hosts an international sports event.
This year, hardliners have been quick to remind authorities and the public that June 19 falls on the second day of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayers, and mourning for martyred saints. Lifting the ban on women watching sports in stadiums would be altogether anti-Islamic, hardliners claim, particularly during such a holy time.
Iravani Religious Seminary, headed by the prostitution-fearing Vasfi, is among the groups that support the ban, and has appealed to the “faithful” to gather outside Azadi Stadium to prevent women from entering on June 19. The seminary regularly speaks out against what it sees as “moral corruption” in society, targeting women in particular. It and Ansar-e-Hezbollah, which is essentially a group of hardline vigilantes, were behind a 2014 rally against “bad hejab.” Organizers encouraged the public to take part in the protest, despite its failure to obtain Interior Ministry authorization.
Last week, the seminary teamed up with Ansar-e-Hezbollah again, distributing leaflets around Tehran and calling for people to take action to ensure women were kept out of stadiums.
Vasri told me that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, he pushed for women to be allowed into stadiums, but the Supreme Leader took a clear stance, objecting to the idea and declaring it wholly unacceptable. “Ahmadinejad accepted this, and reversed his position. But now Ms. Molavardi is pursuing it.”
Some of the leaflets being distributed warned of a “bloody uprising,” but Vasfi backed away from those, suggesting they came from Ansar-e-Hezbollah. Although both groups are working against women being allowed in stadiums, they had separate campaigns, and separate messages to deliver, said Vasfi, so the seminary had nothing to do with the “bloody uprising” message. He insisted that even though the name of the seminary was printed alongside Ansar-e-Hezbollah on the leaflets, his institution wasn’t involved. Vasfi said that Iravani Seminary had only sent text messages to its supporters, promoting the protest outside the stadium on June 19.
I asked Vasri if he would still support a ban on women in stadiums if it appeared to have a negative impact on Iran’s international sporting achievements. “In our country values have priority," he told me. "Our team might have to play against Israel, in which case we would have to forfeit the championship. Our values are more important for our country than international competitions are.”
This article is adapted from one that appeared originally on IranWire.