Farah had been looking forward to this week.
The plan was to fly to the white, silky sands of Kish Island, a small coral resort island in the Persian Gulf, about 10 miles off the southern coast of Iran. There, Farah would attend an international beach volleyball tournament that was being held in Iran for the first time.
It was not a simple excursion. Farah was to be among the first women allowed inside a stadium in Iran to watch volleyball since 2012, when a law barring women from attending soccer games was expanded to include volleyball, which was growing in popularity. In 2014, a British-Iranian activist was jailed just for trying to attend a match. That’s why Farah, as an Iranian, is afraid to have her last name published.
But last spring, officials in Iran signaled their willingness to end the ban, and the international volleyball federation assured critics of its decision to hold an event in Iran that women would be allowed to attend. The federation said Iranian volleyball officials had given their word as well.
So Farah and another woman from the advocacy group Open Stadiums — an organization that for years has campaigned for women to be allowed into stadiums in Iran — flew in hoping to watch the matches early in the week, during qualifying. But when they arrived at the free event, a plainclothes security officer stopped them at the gate.
“Honestly, I thought because here is a free-zone island, they would let women go there, but they did not, despite all the promises,” Farah wrote in an email. “It’s annoying that simple things like watching volleyball is a crime here.”
The international volleyball federation, known by the French acronym FIVB, said it was only a “misunderstanding” that the women were not allowed into the stadiums during qualifying. The next day, on Wednesday, the FIVB said in a statement that women “for the most part” were allowed to watch the men’s tournament, “a first in recent years.”
But in an email to me, Farah disputed that claim, saying, “They’re lying,” and that security forces were once again posted at the gate. She said that it would be dangerous for her or other women even to try to gain entry. On Tuesday, after she had been turned away, Farah heard sounds from a nearby cafe where women were cheering the matches as they watched from the rooftop. So she joined them. On Wednesday, she again watched the matches from another nearby roof.
In the back and forth between the FIVB and Farah, though, I had to stop and think: Why are we even debating this?
It should not be a victory for volleyball that women “for the most part” were allowed entry into an event, or for an international sports body to claim that as a success.
The volleyball federation must recognize that women should be allowed to watch its sporting events, just as men are, and that it must hold accountable national federations and event organizers that bar them. Anything less than that violates the Olympic charter, which has a section on antidiscrimination, and also the volleyball federation’s own set of antidiscrimination rules.
If Iran cannot follow international standards for equality, then it should not be awarded international sporting events, like the one this week on Kish Island, or the one this summer when Iran will host Volleyball World League matches in Tehran.
But the FIVB seems deaf to this. It awarded the tournament on Kish Island and the World League matches to Iran last fall, only months after women were barred from World League matches at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium last summer. (Contrarily, Azadi means freedom in Persian.)
Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, called it “a bait and switch” that women were not allowed into last summer’s matches. Despite assurances from the FIVB and Iran’s federation, “women who wanted to enter the stadium were threatened in such an ugly way,” Worden said. “Police were stationed around the stadium and were told to pull women out of cars.”
So when the volleyball federation turned around and awarded not one big tournament, but two, to Iran, Worden was perplexed.
“If one of my kids whacks his brother, would I say, ‘O.K., you can just watch all the TV you like,’ ” she said. “No, because someone shouldn’t be rewarded for doing something wrong. The FIVB has all the power here because Iran wants those matches. But the FIVB didn’t use it.”
On Monday, Richard Baker, a spokesman for the volleyball federation, explained that the FIVB’s goal is for volleyball to be “the No. 1 family sport entertainment in the world” and that the Iranians had to guarantee access for everybody in order to host any more FIVB events. He called that guarantee “a big deal.”
And yes, it is a big deal. Volleyball is not much of a family sport if the stands are filled only with fathers, brothers and sons.
The federation went on to say, in a statement, that it was concerned by events that occurred Tuesday when women tried to enter the stadium. Not because women weren’t allowed entry, though. It said it was investigating “allegations” that a large group of women arrived to watch the matches as part of “a politically motivated stunt.”
The FIVB assured reporters that there were women at the matches, though Open Stadiums said photographs of those women posted online showed credentials hanging from lanyards around their necks, implying they were officials, or official guests, at least.
Whoever they were, those real, live women watched real, live men play real, live matches of volleyball. And real, live men were in the stands nearby. And the world did not end. In fact, the sport was richer for it.
Whatever happens the rest of the week, the bigger test for Iran will come this summer, when the World League matches will be held in Tehran, far from Kish Island, which The New York Times has called “an oasis of luxury and laxity.”
If all women who want to enter are not allowed unfettered entry there, it should be the last time Iran is awarded international volleyball matches. Three strikes, and they should be out.