The Dangers of Loving Sport in Iran

The Dangers of Loving Sport in Iran - Civic Space

Going past Wembley Stadium on my usual route on the Metropolitan line, pondering when the next game I may go and watch might be, the plight of women in Iran dawned on me again. Iranian women have been barred from stadiums since the revolution in 1979, as the Iranian authorities deem the atmosphere in sports stadiums unsuitable. If only they could act on their temptation to watch their favourite teams or players live at a stadium without being forced to take dangerous routes. During the World Cup and the World League Volleyball tournament of this year, where Iran had been doing extremely well, many women become creative to bypass the restrictions or have protested the bans head-on. A parody of this scenario is seen in Jafar Panahi’s, Offside, which shows Iranian female football fans disguising themselves as men to watch a World Cup qualifying match. The film shows how the simple desire to watch a game requires risky tactics that end in their arrest, highlighting the grave inequalities and hypocrisies within the Iranian legal structure. Iranian artists and women have continually campaigned against these bans and have been confronted for it. For example, in 2011 an Iranian photographer, Maryam Majd, was detained at the airport in Iran for her campaign to allow women to enter stadiums to cheer on their national teams.

In June of this year, battling these inequalities were a group of young women — symbolically dressed in white to counter the regimes requirement that all women should dress in dark colours — outside the Azadi stadium (ironically translating to freedom), who were peacefully demanding to watch the historic Iran-Italy volleyball match on June 20th alongside their countrymen. To add salt to the wound for these avid sports fans, at the first game of the World League, where Iran played Brazil, Brazilian women were allowed to attend and cheer on their team.

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reports that during the Iran-Italy match, “the police harassed, physically assaulted, and arrested several women who were attempting to enter the stadium and attend the game”. One of these brave women was Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25 year old British-Iranian law graduate from SOAS. She, along with a few others, was arrested on the day with her personal belongings confiscated by Iranian security police. She was then given conditional bail on the grounds that she would not attempt to re-enter the facilities. Upon returning to collect her belongings from Vozarra Detention Centre on the 30th she was arrested and transferred to the notorious Evin Prison, without access or contact with her family or lawyer. Security forces then raided her home on the same day.

Amnesty International reports that in Evin Ghavami was kept in solitary confinement for more than 40 days before being moved to a shared cell.  She has since been kept under questionable conditions; Evin being notorious for its devastatingly below international standards conditions. Amnesty reports that, whilst in solitary confinement, this prisoner of conscience was put under “psychological pressure, threatening to move her to Gharchak prison in the county of Varamin, Tehran province, where prisoners convicted of serious criminal offences are held in dismal conditions”; she was then threatened she “would not walk out of prison alive”.  You can find Amnesty International’s petition here.

On the day of Ghavami’s protest it was not only women that were targeted. Jila Baniyaghoub, a journalist reporting from the match had written on her Facebook page that the police were also cracking down on those men who were accompanying the protesting women. “Several times, the men who were supporting the women were beaten and insulted and several of them were arrested.”

In an interview with the ICHRI, Ghavami’s lawyer Tabatabaee said: “Unfortunately, I have not yet been allowed to visit with my client, and because she is still in the interrogation stage and no indictment has been issued, I don’t know her exact charges”.  He continues, “I hope, according to the discussions I have had, that Ms. Ghavami is released on bail over the next few days. I am optimistic.”

Bultan News, a website close to Iranian hardliners, unsurprisingly has been quoted as accusing Ghavami of being a part of “the west’s espionage services” in an attempt to spread chaos in Iran’s socio-political situation. Although, there has been no official confirmation of this from the Iranian authorities.

While there are many similar cases in Evin of prisoners of conscience, Ghavami’s case hits home due to the sheer simplicity of her demand and her familiarity in the UK. She was a familiar face within the Iranian community in the UK, taking part in many Iranian cultural events. She had taken it upon herself to be part of the movement to spread knowledge of Iranian culture — a bright and cheerful young woman who was passionate about her country. Now the picture of this young woman has been circulating internationally, on the internet and on the streets, with the “free Ghoncheh Ghavami” slogan echoing. The fight for her release increases.

On her Facebook page, Shiva Nazar Ahari, who had been amongst the women protesting with Ghavami in June, had said that their demand was very simple , they just wanted to watch the game:  “We wanted to go to the stadium together. We wanted to go sit on those chairs to scream and cheer for our national team.”

Saeed Kamali Dehghan also rightly highlights the conundrum Iranians with dual citizenships face.  He notes that “Iran does not recognise dual citizenship and treats all those with a second nationality solely as Iranian, denying them access to consular assistance.” With regards to Ghavami’s case “The British Foreign Office is pursuing her release but has limited influence.” It is more risky for dual citizens, as seen in Ghavami’s case, as their connection to western countries tends to make accusations such as espionage easier to make.

It is unclear whether President Rouhani will be able to deliver on his promise of a more moderate Iran or whether he can apply any pressure on the Iran’s judicial and security apparatus for this prisoner of conscience’s release, but to date he has failed to address her arrest or make any statements on the topic.

From this point on, on every occasion that I pass Wembley stadium, the image of young women being beaten and detained outside for wanting to cheer on the national team will pop into my head. This image that seems so surreal in the UK becomes more surreal for me knowing that it is a common occurrence in Iran.

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