In Iran, sport is pushing the boundaries
Her name could be heard everywhere last year. Her story moved, shocked and saddened all who heard it. Ghoncheh Ghavami, a 26 year-old British-Iranian, was arrested in June 2014 in Tehran for trying to watch a men’s volleyball match at the Azadi stadium – an act deemed “militant” in a country where women are not allowed to attend certain sports events. For the Iranian regime, her actions were in breach of a law justified by the need to protect female spectators from the “lewd behaviour of male fans”. Having begun a hunger strike in October 2014, Ghoncheh Ghavami was a month later sentenced to a year in prison for “propaganda against the system”, prompting a second strike.
Ghoncheh was released on bail on 23 November following 151 days – including 41 in solitary confinement – in Evin Prison, known for holding political prisoners. She was pardoned at the beginning of April, after a petition her brother launched on global platform Change.org gathered 777,400 signatures. The young woman’s struggle has not been without consequences: just a few days after her pardon was announced, a declaration made by Shahindokht Molaverdi, Iran’s Vice-President for Women and Family Affairs promised change. Molaverdi announced that the ban on women attending basketball, handball and volleyball matches would soon be lifted. “After much review, it was concluded that women’s entry into sports facilities does not have any Sharia issues, and the necessary mechanisms for women’s attendance must be provided”, she said.
This development is a major step forward, in more than just symbolic terms, for women in Iran. Through her resilience, Ghoncheh Ghavami has demonstrated the spirit of a true champion, determined to reach her goal. She is also a reminder of the women in the past who’ve fought for equality among human beings – a battle that is still on-going. Without knowing it, or perhaps through a deeper understanding than the rest of us, Ghoncheh Ghavami changed the game – and she did so through sport and her firm belief in a world in which she would have access to it. Her actions echo Susan B. Anthony’s statement in 1896 that “bicycling has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world”. Whether by accident or design, her actions have changed not only her life but that of the young girls of tomorrow who, like her, will force their way into volleyball stadiums on days when the national team is playing. Ultimately, her story will have an impact way beyond sport.
Through her actions and her non-violent attitude throughout her struggle, Ghoncheh Ghavami has highlighted the first article of the UNESCO International Charter of Physical Education and Sport: “The practice of physical education and sport is a fundamental right for all.” Today more than ever, sport has the power to push the boundaries. In her own way, this courageous and heroic young woman has offered further proof of this.