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(New York) – The International Volleyball Federation, also known as the FIVB, should penalize Iranian authorities for continuing to prevent Iranian women and girls from attending an international men’s volleyball tournament in Tehran. Iran’s men’s national team is scheduled to play its final two matches in Tehran on July 3 and 4.

Iran is hosting the international matches against Russia at the Azadi Sports Complex in Tehran as part of the FIVB’s 2015 World League. In four previous matches that took place in Tehran on June 19, 21, 26, and 28, officials prevented Iranian women from entering the reportedly 12,000 capacity stadium and allowed only a small number of foreign women into the stadium. The FIVB has so far failed to penalize Iran or publicly speak out against the ban, which contravenes the principle of gender non-discrimination in sports. The next major men’s international volleyball tournament hosted by Iran will be the 2015 Asian Volleyball Championships, due to take place between July 31 and August 8, 2015.
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“Despite promises to the contrary, Iranian authorities have repeatedly scorned the rules that allow women to cheer for their national volleyball team alongside their male counterparts,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “At this point, the FIVB should penalize Iran by either canceling the remaining matches and rescheduling them for a different location, or requiring that the matches take place without the presence of any spectators – men or women.”

On June 17, 2015, the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency reported that a source inside Iran’s volleyball federation had confirmed that the “entry of all women to the Azadi Sports Complex during the World League matches has been prohibited.” The report indicated that the decision to ban women had been made despite earlier reports that the Iranian volleyball federation would issue special passes to a select number of women after it announced that it would not sell tickets to women at large.

The ISNA report also noted that the decision to allow women to attend had drawn public protests and “harsh reaction from certain groups” who oppose the presence of women at men’s sporting competitions, notwithstanding earlier announcements by government officials that they would deal harshly with any demonstrations in support of or against the presence of women at the matches. On July 1, president Hassan Rouhani’s advisor on women and family affairs, Shahinkdokht Molaverdi, told reporters that her government decided not to push further on the matter because of the respect it has for the country’s religious authorities, some of whom had voiced their opposition to the presence of women at the volleyball matches.

The 2014 ban on women spectators led to the arrest of several men and women protesting the ban. The ban elicited sharp criticism from Human Rights Watch and others, who called on Iranian authorities to release Ghoncheh Ghavami, an Iranian-British dual national whom authorities arrested on June 30 after she and others attempted to enter a stadium in protest of the ban. The arrests also prompted the FIVB to affirm its commitment to “inclusivity and the right of women to participate in sport on an equal basis.” Since then, Iranian officials have issued conflicting statements regarding whether they would lift such restrictions in part or whole. In April 2015 the FIVB announced that it would “not award Iran hosting rights to any FIVB controlled events while women were banned from sporting events in the country.”

Authorities released Ghavami from prison in November and effectively dropped the case against her, but subjected her to a two-year foreign travel ban.

The male-only policy for spectators at volleyball matches dates to 2012, when the Sports and Youth Affairs Ministry extended the existing policy on soccer matches to cover volleyball. Iranian officials claim that mixed attendance at sports events is “un-Islamic”, threatens public order, and exposes women to crude behavior by male fans.

In December 2014, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Dr. Saleh Bin Nasser, the head of the Asian Volleyball Confederation (AVC), urging the AVC to “revoke its selection of Iran as a co-host of the 2015 Asian Men’s Volleyball Championships while Iran continues to discriminate against women and girls by denying them access to volleyball matches.” To date, Human Rights Watch has not received a response to its letter, and there are no indications that the AVC intends to prohibit Iran from hosting the tournament if the ban on women continues, or to penalize Iran for its discriminatory action.

“All organizers of international sporting events, including the FIVB and AVC, should do the right thing and actively support the right of women and girls to participate in sports,” said Worden. “Iranian authorities cannot have it both ways – while they maintain their failure to play by the rules, they should lose the opportunity to host international sporting events.”

Human Rights Watch has called on organizers of international sporting events to include non-discrimination clauses in their host city contracts, following the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in September to include that requirement. The IOC has since informed the finalists bidding for the 2022 Winter Games of this requirement.

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