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Iranian Social Dissent Remains Underground and in Exile

The rise and fall of this optimism seems to have been reenacted on a smaller scale this month in light of a newly enlivened debate about Iran’s ban on the presence of women in its sports stadiums. NBC News reports that women’s rights activists and progressive Iranians were somewhat encouraged by an earlier announcement that the ban would be slightly relaxed in time for matches between the Iranian and US volleyball teams, which began on Friday.

Iranian Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi claimed that a section of about 200 seats in Tehran’s 12,000-seat Azadi Stadium would be reserved for women, mainly players’ relatives. While the overall ban was to remain in place, this appeared to some observers as a modest victory for the cause that had led to British-Iranian women’s rights activist Ghoncheh Ghavami being arrested and detained for five months last year.

But NBC and IranWire report that just in advance of the actual start of the US-Iran matches, Tehran apparently reneged on its promise. The Iranian Volleyball Federation and the Iranian Students’ News Agency both declared that women would simply not be allowed in the stadium. The government received highly vocal support for the renewed enforcement of the ban from clerics and hardliners who protested the prior announcement and even threatened to “spill blood” if any women attempted to enter the stadium on Friday.

In light of the brief upsurge in optimism, this shift appears to be a setback for women’s rights activists and the prospects of public debate on related issues. Iran has been subject to international criticism of its stadium ban from foreign governments and the world governing bodies of both volleyball and soccer. But the high-profile arrest of Ms. Ghavami illustrated the serious roadblocks to public dissent on the issue inside Iran.

Consequently, the inability of even a limited number of women to attend Friday’s game indicates that dissent on this and other issues must remain largely underground. But this is a strong trend within Iranian society, as suggested on Friday by an video from France24. That video compiles testimony from individuals on the ground in Iran about how banned leisure activities are finding an outlet in secret locations and movements, especially among women.

These banned activities include men and women dancing, both separately and together, women singing, women bodybuilding, and men and women expressing themselves through body art. Underground movements focused on these and other activities defy the Iranian government’s restrictions even when the enforcement of those restrictions is strongly reasserted as has just been done in the case of the stadium ban.

Among advocates of women’s rights and other progressive social causes, this trend is complemented by bold protests and by journalistic challenges, but these put participants at risk of political imprisonment, exile, or worse. IranWire highlighted several victims of one of these repressive responses on Friday, one day ahead of World Refugee Day. The news site points out that at least 21 Iranian media workers are currently living and working in exile as a result of prosecution or persecution by the Iranian regime.

At the same time, many key figures in the political opposition to the regime also live in exile and face the threat of imprisonment, torture, and execution if they return to the country. These include the leadership of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its female president Maryam Rajavi, who is viewed by supporters as a major representative of the very women’s rights issues that received their latest setback this week.


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