Iran has said it will allow female fans to attend big sporting events alongside men, overturning a long-standing ban that made international headlines when a young British-Iranian woman was jailed for trying to attend a men’s volleyball match last year.
The deputy minister for sports, Abdolhamid Ahmadi, told the state news agency on Saturday that the country’s national security council had approved a government proposal to allow women to watch games this year.
Iranian authorities detained Ghoncheh Ghavami, 26, in June for trying to attend a men’s volleyball match.
Ghavami, who spent five months in jail before being released on bail, was arrested after taking part in a protest with other activists in front of Tehran’s majestic Azadi complex, wearing a white scarf and holding a placard, demanding to be allowed to watch the match between Iran and Italy.
Now it has emerged that an appeals court has dismissed charges against her and she will not have to return to prison, although a travel ban imposed on her is still in place.
In reaction to her detention, the international volleyball federation said it would not allow Iran to host international events while women were barred from stadiums.
Speaking to the Observer, Ghavami, who is in Tehran, welcomed the news. “Although this proposal is likely to be enforced with some limitations in the beginning, fortunately the issue of women demanding to be allowed in stadiums has gained much public support in the country thanks to the efforts of women’s rights activists in the past 10 years,” she said.
“The new government has supported the ban to be lifted but we want to make sure there will be a guarantee women will be allowed to attend all sporting events in future.”
It was not clear from Ahmadi’s comments which sports women can watch, but they are likely to include basketball and volleyball. The move will pave the way for women to watch football matches. Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, welcomed Saturday’s news in a tweet.
“This proposal is designed according to our cultural, social and religious sensibilities and for certain sports which are exclusive to men, families [and women] cannot attend matches,” the deputy minister said, presumably referring to swimming.
Although women in Iran engage in a variety of sports from martial arts to car rallies so long as they obey the Islamic hijab, they are not allowed to do certain sports in public where men can watch, such as swimming.
But the Iranian society is slowly, steadily changing and women are increasingly allowed greater sporting activities. Iranian women’s struggle to be allowed to enter stadiums was highlighted in a 2006 film, Offside, made by prominent Iranian director Jafar Panahi, which features a group of girls attempting to enter a stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match.
The mandatory hijab for sportswomen has caused obstacles in the past. In 2011, Iran’s women’s football team was banned from an Olympic qualifier recently after Fifa ruled that their full-body strip broke the organisations rules.
In 2013, soon after Hassan Rouhani won the election in Tehran Shirin Gerami, made history after persuading Iranian officials to allow her to compete in a world championship in London as Iran’s first female triathlete.
She was the first Iranian women to take part in triathlon, which involved swimming in public, for her country’s tricolour green, white and red flag.
Rouhani, who tweeted a picture of Gerami after the competition, has called for gender equality since taking power, but such decisions are not entirely in his hands.
Ghavami’s detention embarrassed him but Iran’s judiciary, which was behind her arrest, acts independently of government. The president has advocated women being allowed to enter sporting events, such as volleyball matches.
Efforts to allow women to watch sport started under Ahmadinejad’s rule but hit a gridlock when a group of hardline Iranian MPs and influential clerics objected. Fatemeh Alia, a female MP, was quoted as saying last year that women are for “taking care of their babies and husband – not watching volleyball”.
It is not clear if the new announcement will meet any sabotage by the conservative-dominated parliament.