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(New York) – The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) should cease awarding Iran the right to host FIVB international tournaments until the country ensures that female spectators can freely attend volleyball matches in the country, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to Ary Graça, the sports federation’s leader. Graça was re-elected as the FIVB’s president at the sports federation’s 35th World Congress this week in Buenos Aires.

In July 2016, the organizers of FIVB World League volleyball matches in Tehran appeared to continue to obstruct the ability of women to freely purchase tickets and attend, in apparent violation of what the FIVB calls its “fundamental principle” of nondiscrimination.

Iran's supporters shout during the FIVB Men's Volleyball World Championship first round match between Iran and Italy in Milan September 27, 2010.    © 2010 Reuters

Iran is competing again to be a host of the FIVB’s World League, the most important tournament in volleyball, as well as of the FIVB’s beach volleyball tournament. The FIVB is expected to announce 2017 hosts in the coming weeks.

“Iranian volleyball authorities broke their promises to make tickets freely available to women during the World League matches in July and suffered no consequence,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives. “Awarding Iran yet another World League tournament would only embolden the authorities in their discriminatory policies that sideline women.”

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly communicated its concerns to the FIVB in writing and in-person at meetings in Lausanne, where the FIVB has its headquarters. In a May 2016 letter to Graça, Human Rights Watch asked for a formal investigation into the exclusion of female spectators from a February 2016 tournament on Kish Island. Such an investigation should now also examine the restrictions imposed on women spectators during the July 2016 World League.

Before tickets to the July World League tournament went on sale, the FIVB’s Persian-language website claimed that capacity “had already been reached” for seats reserved for women at Azadi (“Freedom”) Stadium in Tehran, and that “spectators who purchased tickets of [the] opposite gender will not be allowed into the stadium.” The FIVB had promised women would be allowed to buy tickets, and some women were indeed photographed in the stadium. However, photos from the tournament show that most of the seats reserved for women were empty. The Persian language news site Tabnak News Agency reported that these tickets were not put on sale to the general public, but were reserved for wives of Iranian officials or female Iranian officials, Iranian female athletes, and in some cases, the wives of foreign diplomats.

“Despite its pledge to end discrimination in the stadiums, the Iranian volleyball federation appears to have constructed a system that denies most women any opportunity to attend matches,” Worden said. “The FIVB should make clear that Iran will not be able to host international volleyball competitions until the Iranian federation makes good on its promises.”

Women have been unable to purchase tickets to volleyball matches in Iran since 2012. In June 2014, law student Ghoncheh Ghavami and several other women were arrested when they attempted to attend a Volleyball World League match at Azadi 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 February 2016, the FIVB assured Human Rights Watch and the Iranian public that the Kish Island Open, Iran’s first beach volleyball tournament, would “be open to fans from all age groups and genders.” However, Iranian women who spoke to Human Rights Watch, domestic news reports, and Twitter posts demonstrated how women who attempted to attend the tournament were told entry was “forbidden” and were turned away based on their gender.

In August, Iran’s men’s volleyball team played in the Olympics for the first time. Some Iranian women went to Brazil to see their national team, including some who publicly held up banners protesting Iran’s ban on women attending matches inside the county.

The FIVB should insist that the Iranian volleyball federation ensure that women can freely attend volleyball matches in the country, Human Rights Watch said. The FIVB should also develop and publish a plan to address the discrimination, and tell the authorities that Iran will not be welcome to host future international tournaments until women spectators are freely able to attend.

“The FIVB may want to build the sport of volleyball in Iran, but embracing gender discrimination and ugly double standards is no way to go about it,” Worden said. 

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