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Struggling for Women’s Rights: International Sports Associations Duck the Gun

This is a story as much about Saudi Arabia or for that matter about Iran as it is about international sports associations and how they balance upholding their principles and values with a realistic assessment of how they can best ensure compliance by member associations. In fact, this story could just as well be about whether Qatar against the backdrop of criticism of its labour regime should be allowed to host the 2022 World Cup or whether collective punishment that penalizes guilty and innocent athletes alike is the way to go in the case of Russia that stands accused of endorsing doping.

The issue in Saudi Arabia and Iran is women’s sporting rights. In Iran, it really is about only one right; the right to attend male sporting tournaments. Iranian women sports is otherwise by and large well developed. In Saudi Arabia, it’s about stadium attendance too, but it’s about much more, it’s about the right to physical exercise and the right to compete in any sporting discipline. Attitudes of international sports association towards upholding women’s sporting rights in Saudi Arabia and Iran constitutes a mixed bag. In fact, until 2012 both countries got away with restricting women’s rights with no risk to their ability to host or compete in international tournaments and no risk of being barred or their reputations being tarnished.

“It’s humiliating. First you belong to your father and brother, then to your husband and son who can do with you what they want. It is humiliating. How can you say that women’s rights go against culture? The problem is: who cares about women’s rights?” says Darya Safai, a 41-year old Iranian student activist-turned dentist and women’s sports campaigner who was jailed in Iran before fleeing via Turkey to Belgium.

Ms. Safai, who travels the world to sporting mega events at which she unfolds a banner demanding women’s unfettered access to stadiums in Iran, sees her activism rooted in her first encounters as a child with discrimination of women. In line with Iranian dress code, her mother forced her at age six on her first day of school to exchange the clothes she liked for a body enveloping blue mantle and a head cover. “I realized something was wrong when I saw my neighbour’s son going to school in the same clothes he always wore. Nothing had changed for him. From that moment on, I wanted to be a boy,” Ms. Safai said.

Ms. Safai was subsequently admonished by teachers for laughing out loud because that was improper. “I was afraid in school. I look at pictures from that time and I’m never smiling because girls aren’t supposed to display their teeth. From age nine, we were taught that you would go to hell if a man sees you. I was afraid of the pain of burning in hell. Later my bicycle was taken from me. It was terrorizing children…At a given moment, the penny dropped. I realized it’s not my fault. That was my rebellion. I wanted my rights,” she said speaking fluent Dutch in an Antwerp café.

Ms. Safai had a taste of those rights in 1997 when thousands of Iranian male and female soccer fans poured into the streets of Tehran to celebrate Iran’s defeat of Australia with a last-minute goal in a World Cup qualifier that paved the way for the Islamic Republic’s joining the 1998 World Cup finals. “It was a day on which everything that was forbidden became possible. Men and women were on the streets. The veils were off, they danced and sang together. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life,” Ms. Safai recalls.

2012 was a watershed in the struggle for women’s sporting rights in the Middle East in several ways. It was the year in which world soccer body FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that sets the rules of the game opened the door to religiously observant Muslim women to play in international competitions with their hair covered. It was also the year in which West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups the region’s national associations with the exception of Israel adopted a resolution that put the right of a women to compete on par with that of a man. Eleven of the federation’s 13 member associations, including Iran, voted in favour. Saudi Arabia and Yemen voted against. The resolution was revolutionary even if it only had symbolic value because the federation doesn’t have the teeth to enforce it.

2012 was also the year in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for the first time threatened the world’s three countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei – that had never sent a woman to an Olympic sporting event with a boycott if women were not included in their representations in London. Saudi Arabia avoided a boycott by sending two expatriate athletes. What has evolved since in both the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran is a cat and mouse game in which international sports associations effectively have thrown the towel into the ring in effect allowing the two countries to maintain misogynist policies. It has also forced human rights groups to rethink how they best can pressure international sports associations to stand up for universal rights.

To be fair, despite what I would view as a cave-in, attitudes in international sports associations have shifted. That is too say they no longer evade the issue even if they at best following a brief period of taking a stand now only pay lip service to it. Also to be fair, the results of the associations’ activism is a mixed bag. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it forced the kingdom to allow women to compete albeit in only very small numbers – in Rio the number of Saudi women doubled from two to four – and only in a very limited number of sports that are mentioned in the Qur’an. In Iran, pressure first appeared to succeed but then failed in part because associations like the International Volleyball Federation ultimately backtracked or in the case of the Asian Football Confederation either refrained from holding Iran to its promises or publicly endorsed Iranian policies.

One other thing has also changed. In the days of Jacque Rogge’s stewardship of the IOC, there was no contact between the committee and human rights groups. Rogge wanted nothing to do with them. That changed with the rise of Thomas Bach. Bach met with the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shortly after being elected and has maintained that dialogue. Bach also initially attempted to follow through with the Saudis in the wake of the committee’s initial success with the London Olympics. The Saudis refusal to send women to the subsequent Asian Games, their refusal to allow women to compete in anything but Quranic sports, and their development of the kingdom’s first national sports plan for men only infuriated Bach. It prompted him to after first requesting restraint on the part of the human rights groups to ultimately say to them: Go for it, Saudi Arabia is yours. Yet in saying that, he effectively dropped the ball. The IOC had no intention of continuously pressuring Saudi Arabia or continuously wielding the stick of a boycott.

As a result, pressure by the IOC to force Saudi Arabia to take necessary measures, including introduction of mandatory sports lessons in girl’s schools, development of an infrastructure that would foster women’s elite sports, and adoption of policies to encourage and enable female participation, have lacked the resolve necessary to produce results that go beyond a nominal quadrennial women’s presence. Human rights groups have concluded that in the absence of being able to pressure Saudi Arabia directly, they only have an opportunity every four years to influence the IOC in the final run-up to an Olympic tournament.

The pattern is similar in the case of Iran. The International Volleyball Federation initially declared that it would not grant Iran hosting rights as long as women were not granted unfettered access to stadia. In response, Iran promised to allow women to attend international volleyball tournaments in the Islamic republic. Similarly, Iran promised the Asian Football Confederation, the AFC,that women would be allowed to attend Asian Cup matches hosted by Iran. In both cases, Iran never stuck to its promise and at best allowed foreign women to enter. The US Volleyball Federation on the informal advice of the State Department decided not to send its woman president to Iran when the US national team played their even though the vice president of Iran is a woman and Iranian sports associations have women’s sections that are headed by women. The international federation earlier this year backed down from its threat of a boycott declaring that gender segregation in Iran was culturally so deep-seated that a boycott would not produce results. The federation argued that engagement held out more promise. The decision flew in the face of the facts. Gender segregation in volleyball in Iran was only introduced some four or five years ago.

The same is not true for soccer where segregation has been a fixture since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The AFC however went a step further. It not only failed to force Iran to stick to its promise to allow women to attend Asian matches. When Iran was upset in January last year at Australian-Iranian women cheering the Iranian soccer team at the Asian Games in Australia and players mingling with their Australian fans, AFC secretary general Alex Soosay defended Iran’s right to do what it wanted within its national borders. As an aside, Soosay was fired six months later after I published evidence of his attempt to cover up his possible involvement in corruption. Soosay has since been hired as a consultant by the AFC.

In the cases of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, I would argue that a principled stand that sanctions the two countries makes imminent sense albeit for very different reasons and that harks back to the notion of balancing adherence to principles with a realistic assessment of what can be achieved and how it can be achieved. I would argue that a firm and principled stand in the case of Saudi Arabia has a chance of success.

The reason for that optimism is that Saudi Arabia is in flux. Saudi Arabia’s strategy of letting international oil prices drop to maintain market share and squeeze Iran has failed. Shale oil has proven to be resilient and Iran in the wake of the nuclear agreement is on the rise. The failure coupled with geopolitics and the fallout of the 2011 Arab popular revolts is forcing Saudi Arabia to do what is long overdue: upgrade its autocracy and diversify its economy. Without discussing the merits of the Saudi plan formulated in a document called Vision 2030, this entails curbing the raw edges of puritan Islamic rule, bringing more women into the labour market and offering youth more opportunities not only in terms of jobs but also with regard to entertainment. Saudi Arabia’s system of government, a marriage between an autocratic ruling family and a puritan albeit opportunistic clergy, is under pressure both at home and abroad and inevitably will have to be renegotiated. At the same time, Saudi Arabia needs increased foreign investment and needs to polish its tarnished image. One reason why Saudi Arabia came up with the hair-brained idea of hosting an Olympic tournament together with Bahrain. Men would compete in Saudi, women in Bahrain.

In short, Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to pressure. It demonstrated that with its torturous but ultimate decision to allow women to compete in London in 2012 and in Rio this year. Exactly the opposite is true for Iran. International pressure is unlikely to produce results. Iran is embroiled in a power struggle in the wake of the nuclear agreement and in advance of elections next year. The nuclear agreement has produced for Iran on multiple levels, but the one area where it has yet to achieve tangible results is in the pocket of the average Iranian. At stake in the power struggle are vested interests. Iran is a country ruled by middle-aged former revolutionaries who need to maintain a façade.

For the Revolutionary Guards, who play a major controlling role in sports, particularly soccer, it’s about defending widespread economic interests. One battlefield in Iran is cultural, including sports. It’s a battlefield on which it’s easy for the conservatives and hardliners to score a goal. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has to pick his battles if he wants to stand a chance for re-election. Women’s passive sporting rights, in other words the right to free access to stadiums, is not one of those battles that is crucial to Rouhani’s prospects. The domestic cost of fighting that battle outweighs the cost of a refusal of international sports associations to grant Iran hosting rights. It would be a different story if the associations would ban Iran from international competition as long as it restricts women’s rights much as was the case with Saudi Arabia.

This comes as no surprise to Ms. Safai, the women’s sport activist. Mr. Rohani was secretary of the National Security Council when she was arrested in 1999 for participating in anti-government student protests that were brutally squashed. Together with Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, Mr. Rouhani denounced the protesters as dirty people seeking to undermine security and vowed to “deal with these opportunists and riotous elements, if they simply dare to show their faces.”

The fight for women’s rights is personal for Ms. Safai, a mother of two. “I don’t care what it costs me. I love Iran, it’s my country. I want people to be equal and to have equal rights,” she says.

Ms. Safai’s campaign keeps the issue in the public eye, but is unlikely to spark change in Iran any time soon. What this means is that the International Volleyball Federation is probably correct in its conclusion that a boycott of Iran would be useless in terms of achieving concrete results. It also means that engagement will not do the trick.

As a result, the upshot of all of this is that boycotts make sense in both Iran and Saudi Arabia albeit for very different reasons. In the case of Saudi Arabia, a boycott has proven to have a chance of success. That is all the truer against the backdrop of the geopolitical, political and social issues Saudi Arabia has to deal with. In the case of Iran, its exactly the opposite. What is at stake is not chances of success, but the integrity of international sports associations in upholding their own principles as well as universal values in the absence of any chance of breaking a deadlock and encouraging progress.