Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums with Darya Safai

Darya Safai, Iranian women’s rights campaigner and founder of Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums, addresses the 8th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On growing up in Iran:

“I grew up in the religious dictatorship of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mine and many of my generation’s is a bitter story of discrimination and oppression under the veil of “Sharia”. As if the wings we used to have have been clipped to make sure we would never be able to spread them and fly away.”

“We as girls, contrary to boys, we were not allowed to ride a bicycle or go swimming.”

“Because of all these restrictions, I really didn’t like being a girl. I didn’t want to be different from a boy and even felt ashamed for being a girl.”

“As I grew up, I started asking myself more questions. Like, why do only women have to cover themselves? For me, feeling the sun and wind touch my hair was the pinnacle of joy, especially in the hot summer.”

On oppression by the Iranian regime:

“Life of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is imbued with discrimination under the veil of Sharia law. The hijab is mandatory. A woman is not allowed to work, study or travel without her husband’s permission.”

“Under President Rouhani, in the past two years, the religious police opened more than 3 million files on women who do not live up to regulations regarding clothing. Between March and November 2015, more than 40,000 cars were confiscated because the female drivers or passengers didn’t wear their hijab properly.”

On the importance of women’s rights:

“No society can develop as long as systematic discrimination of women is the rule rather than exception.”

“The fight for equal rights corrodes Islamism to the core of its existence and will eventually overthrow it because equal rights for women are incompatible with an Islamic state structure.”

“A fight for women’s rights is a fight against extremism, better and more efficient than any army.”

Full Remarks

Good afternoon everybody. I’m very honored to be here among you today.

My name is Darya Safai.

I grew up in the religious dictatorship of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mine and many of my generation’s is a bitter story of discrimination and oppression under the veil of “Sharia”. As if the wings we used to have have been clipped to make sure we would never be able to spread them and fly away.

Today I am here to to talk about the situation of Iranian women – women who were on their way towards equality to men; women who were more competent, brilliant and advanced than ever. After the revolution of ‘79, these women suddenly became inferior creatures. They account for half of Iran’s population and are victimized by the gender discrimination.

Allow me to tell you my story so you can see more about my life and that of my generation.

The first time I was confronted with that sort of discrimination was when I was six years old, the first day of school, and I was on my way to go for the beginning of school. Suddenly I had to wear a veil, a large dark cloak, and trousers underneath. Of course, I didn’t find my clothes beautiful. I had better ones than that. But one day it was time to change the code of dress. But what saddened me most was that a neighbour’s boy, who was on his way to school, I saw him in the same clothes as the day before. So as a girl of six I knew my life was changing, but his life stayed the same.

At another time, while I was playing at the playground with my girl friends, suddenly I had to laugh out loudly. I was about nine years old. The head of the school came to us very angry and talked like “How dare you laugh out loudly? It does not suit a girl. You can’t laugh that loudly.” I felt deeply ashamed and guilty for having done something utterly wrong. So my code of conduct changed as well.

And like that, we as girls, contrary to boys, we were not allowed to ride a bicycle or go swimming.

Because of all these restrictions, I really didn’t like being a girl. I didn’t want to be different from a boy and even felt ashamed for being a girl.

As I grew up, I started asking myself more questions. Like, why do only women have to cover themselves? For me, feeling the sun and wind touch my hair was the pinnacle of joy, especially in the hot summer.

Life of women in the Islamic Republic of Iran is imbued with discrimination under the veil of Sharia law. The hijab is mandatory. A woman is not allowed to work, study or travel without her husband’s permission. A woman can’t divorce, only on exceptional conditions. After a divorce, a woman can’t get custody over her children. The children go automatically to the husband, and even if the husband dies, it goes to the husband’s family. Women inherit half of what men do and women’s testimonies in court only have half the value of men’s.

And all this while individual and social freedom of Iranian society before the revolution had never been limited, that makes it difficult for Iranian women to accept these regulations now.

In my graduating year at Tehran University in 1999, a student manifestation had broke out. People were more than fed up with the blatant limitations of freedom and daily violations of human rights. These student manifestations resulted in a widely supported protest movement against the regime. My husband and I actively participated in these student protests. We constantly lived in fear and were permanently under observation, but we still  cherished the hope and belief that we could change everything if we could just do that.

However, the regime retaliated. And protests of course, did not go unanswered. Like myself, many people wound up in prison. My husband had fled. Until today, any form of protest is still violently nipped in the bud by the regime.

People sometimes point out to me that for Iranian women things must have changed for the better under President Rouhani. That could not be less true! Let me tell you about some new limitations for Iranian women: Under President Rouhani, in the past two years, the religious police opened more than 3 million files on women who do not live up to regulations regarding clothing. Between March and November 2015, more than 40,000 cars were confiscated because the female drivers or passengers didn’t wear their hijab properly. These numbers clearly show that Iranian women don’t want to live the way the government prescribes. Universities have now introduced quotas to limit the amount of girls. Girls used to constitute 67% of all students, but now their enrolment is limited to 50%. And all of this while there are no limitations for men.

There are also new limitations regarding music concerts. Female musicians, who had already been banned from singing, now even can’t play an instrument anymore. Every concert with female musicians is getting cancelled.  In other words, the situation is not improving. It is just getting worse.

The discrimination of Iranian women is also being carried forward into the sports arena. Women are being restricted in practicing sports, under the pretext of them having to wear bothersome clothing. As if this is not enough, female fans are being targeted as well. Some are even serving a jail sentence because they wanted to attend a game. To make it even worse, all this happens under the supervision of the international sports federations. In the Asian Volleyball Championship, which was held in October 2012 in Tehran, about a third of the spectators in the Azadi Stadium, with a current capacity of 12,000 people, were women. But now it has been three years that Iranian women do not even have the right to attend the national volleyball team competitions as spectators.

From the day the stadium ban was implemented women have made numerous attempts to protest against this ban. Offside, an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi, who has been banned from filmmaking, shows some of these efforts. There have also been widely organized efforts against gender discrimination in sports outside Iran.

I founded the “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums” campaign and I have also participated with my campaign in these efforts alongside some former Iranian and American female sport champions and other female activists from all around the world. We went to Sweden, USA, Belgium, Italy, Poland and some other countries with our message “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums” on t-shirts and banners. Thanks to our actions I’ve had contact at the highest echelons of FIFA and FIVB to bring up the issue.

But we still observe that the government of Rouhani neglects the right of women to enter a stadium. During the FIVB World League games in Tehran in June 2015 they didn’t sell tickets for women and security forces took up positions in a large area around the stadium, inspected approaching cars at checkpoints, and diverted women away, even when they were living close to the stadium – only to prevent protests of women, who were denied access to the stadium despite earlier promises that they could attend these games.

To exercise and watch sport events are the basic rights of every citizen, regardless of gender or race. The fact that all women except for Iranians can attend stadiums inside Iran is a great insult to Iranian women. Yes. Foreign women can attend stadiums inside Iran! The Iranian and Saudi Arabian women are the only women throughout the world who are prevented from entering stadiums, with the difference that Iranian women have had the right for several generations and have enjoyed it.

Today, the sports arena has become a major place for ​​women’s civil campaigns. The Volleyball arenas are the front line of women’s campaigns against gender discrimination.

Iranian women need support from democratic countries and international organizations. No society can develop as long as systematic discrimination of women is rule rather than exception.

Regarding the problems of extreme Islamism the world is facing nowadays, it is even more important to support women who fight against this discrimination.

The fight for equal rights corrodes Islamism to the core of its existence and will eventually overthrow it because equal rights for women are incompatible with an Islamic state structure. A fight for women’s rights is a fight against extremism, better and more efficient than any army. I am confident that the fight for women’s rights in Islamic countries and beyond can halt the lethal spiral of violence.

If women win, the whole society wins!

Thank you for your attention.

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