Going to watch a volleyball game shouldn’t mean having to make a major political statement. It certainly shouldn’t mean arrest and indefinite detention in solitary confinement. But that is exactly what happened to dual British-Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 25-year-old woman who went to Tehran’s Azadi Stadium in June to watch a match during the International Federation of Volleyball World League games. She and other women were defying a 2012 ban on Iranian women watching volleyball games, supposedly to protect them from the lewd behavior of male fans.
Police used excessive force to disperse the women and several, including Ms Ghavami, were arrested. Ms Ghavami spent 41 days in solitary confinement without access to her family or lawyer. She has reportedly been told that she is going to be charged with “propaganda against the state” which would involve a trial in a Revolutionary Court; on September 1 the prosecutor recommended that her detention be extended for another two months.
The Iranian government has imposed a ban on women attending soccer matches for a long time. Jafar Panahi, the noted Iranian film director, made a film called Offside in 2006 which follows young female soccer enthusiasts who dress up as boys in a daring attempt to get access to the stadium to watch their favorite sport.
One might rightly ask why the Iranian authorities don’t seem to have anything better to do than imprison people for trying to watch sporting events. But the detention of Ghavami is just one more incident in an ongoing culture war waged by Iran’s hardliners in order to assert their power and influence, and also undermine President Rouhani, who has publicly called for more freedom in Iran.
There are plenty of other recent examples of hardliners going to extreme lengths to make their point that no behavior is beyond their draconian control. Take the harsh sentences handed down to the young people who made a home video of the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” Five of those who appear in the video have been sentenced to six months’ imprisonment each and a sixth to one year. All six have also been sentenced to 91 lashes. The sentences are suspended for three years.
Earlier this year, eight young Iranians were sentenced to a combined 127 years just for their Facebook postings. They had been convicted on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “blasphemy, insulting Heads of Branches, and insulting individuals.”
Meanwhile Iranian authorities have closed down a number of publications and eminent journalist Shahla Sherkat was required to appear before Iran’s Press Court. She had recently launched a women’s magazine called Zanan-e Emruz (Today’s Women)—presumably in light of President Rouhani’s expressed interest in permitting greater freedom—only to see her publication accused of promoting un-Islamic feminist ideas by hard-liners.
So to return to the question posed before—and to pursue the metaphor—Iran’s hardliners are casting as wide a net as possible to catch even the tiniest fish so they can fry them. The whole point being to remind Iranian citizens that there is no aspect of their personal lives that is beyond the grasp of the authorities, that nothing can escape their control. Iranian citizens have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, and they can’t even watch a volleyball game.
Ghoncheh Ghavami is a prisoner of conscience and she needs your help. Take action today and send a message to Iranian leaders demanding her immediate and unconditional release.