As Iran prepares to take on the United States in the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball’s 2015 World League competition on Friday, 19 June, the issue of women in stadiums is once again being hotly debated across Iran. The usual arguments have been reignited, with fans calling for their rights to be upheld and hardliners warning that Islamic values are at risk. And there are some new claims, too, including that women’s presence in stadiums encourages and promotes prostitution.
Friday’s game will take place at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium. But will women be among the 12,000 fans showing their support for the Iranian men’s volleyball team? 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, reiterating a statement she gave to Shargh newspaper on June 1. Representatives from other government agencies have denied that any decision has been reached on the matter.
The debate over female sports fans in stadiums is long-running, contentious and divisive, dating back to the early days of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and re-ignited every time Iran hosts an international sports events. 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 anti-Islamic, hardliners claim, particularly during such a holy time.
Iravani Religious Seminary 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 (“Supporters of Party of God”), a group of hardliner vigilantes, were behind the 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.
Hamed Vasfi, a 56-year-old clergyman, is head of the Iravani Seminary and author of the book Hejab According to the Koran. I asked him why he objected to the presence of women in sports stadiums. “The presence of women in stadiums is against the laws of sharia, and all religious authorities have issued edicts on this.” In particular, Vasri said, “the presence of women in stadiums promotes prostitution and leads to moral corruption. We have examples. Pictures published from women in stadiums clearly shows this.”
Vasri said that, when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pushed for women to be allowed into stadiums during his presidency, 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.”
I also wanted to confirm that the leaflets — some of which warned of a “bloody uprising” — had been issued and distributed by the seminary, in collaboration with Ansar-e-Hezbollah. Vasfi said that, although the two groups were both working against women being allowed in stadiums, they had separate campaigns, and separate messages to deliver. He said the seminary had nothing to do with the “bloody uprising” message, even though I pointed out that the leaflets I had seen featured the name of the seminary alongside Ansar-e-Hezbollah. Vasfi insisted that Iravani Seminary had only sent text messages to its supporters, promoting the protest outside the stadium on June 19. He said that the seminary was taking other “measures” to protect the country’s moral fiber, in addition to the protest. When pushed on the topic, he refused to provide further details. “Don’t be impatient,” he said.
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.”