(New York) – Iranian authorities’ decision to prevent women from attending an international beach volleyball tournament this week, despite prior assurances, is a disappointing step backwards for women’s equal access to attend public sporting events. Iran is hosting the first men’s beach volleyball tournament in Iran, on Kish Island, from February 15 to 19, 2016.

Although an official 2012 ban prohibits Iranian women from attending volleyball matches, the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) announced on February 7, 2016, that it received assurances from organizers of the Kish Island Open that, “the event will be open to fans from all age groups and genders. This will include families and women.” This announcement was greeted with cautious optimism by Iranian women’s rights activists, who are aware that until the ban is officially lifted, women who seek to attend volleyball matches or other sporting events remain at risk of arrest, harassment, or other forms of retaliation.

“Brave Iranian women who took the FIVB at its word were turned away at the turnstiles this week. That is a black eye for the sport of volleyball, and a setback for women’s rights in Iran,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “This sorry episode highlights the shortcomings of the FIVB’s strategy with the Iranian government, and contradicts their claims that all Iranian fans are welcome.”

Brave Iranian women who took the FIVB at its word were turned away at the turnstiles this week. That is a black eye for the sport of volleyball, and a setback for women’s rights in Iran.

Minky Worden

Director of Global Initiatives

One Iranian woman who sought to attend a match at the Kish Open told Human Rights Watch, “We went there and a security [officer] told me, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Watching matches.’ He said: ‘It’s forbidden.’”

The woman added that a group of other women there to watch the FIVB’s tournament had gathered on the rooftop of a nearby coffee shop overlooking the tournament grounds in an effort to see the matches.

Photos and video posted by @IRIVF, the official account of the Iran Volleyball Federation, show half empty stands on day two of the tournament, with only men watching.

The FIVB responded to the incident by stating, “We are pleased to say this has been a success, although there was a slight misunderstanding by security personnel on Tuesday [today] morning, which has now been resolved.”

“This episode is far more serious than a ‘slight misunderstanding,’ since it spotlights the broader risk the 2012 ban imposes on Iranian women who seek to attend volleyball matches,” said Worden. “It is not fair to ask women to come to the matches without protection and planning for the likelihood that women would have trouble at the gates as in past years.”

The 2012 ban on women attending men’s volleyball matches emerged after the Iranian Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs extended the 1979 ban on women attending games in soccer stadiums. Iranian women have worked for more than a decade to reclaim the right to attend all public sporting events, which is also guaranteed by the Olympic Charter, and the FIVB’s own constitution, which pledges non-discrimination. The ban is just one example of the multiple forms of gender discrimination faced by Iranian women in law and in practice.

In June 2014, Ghoncheh Ghavami and several other women were arrested when they attempted to attend a Volleyball World League match at Tehran’s Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium. While most were released soon thereafter, Ghavami was rearrested, charged with “propaganda against the state,” and held in Evin Prison – including a stretch in solitary confinement – for nearly five months.

In October 2014 and November 2015, Human Rights Watch met with the FIVB in Lausanne to urge them to defend gender equality and take up the case of women excluded from their own international tournaments. The #Watch4Women campaign spotlights the courage and determination of Iranian women, who know their rights and are taking risks to exercise them.

“The FIVB has awarded Iran hosting rights for the Kish Open and for the June 2016 World League matches in Tehran, so the ball is in their court to ensure Iran plays by international rules,” Worden said. “Women being sidelined like this is all the more reason for the FIVB to press Iranian authorities lift this discriminatory ban.”