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Ayatollahs Back In The Spotlights On Social Regulations

An Iranian activist, Darya Safai holds a banner reading "Let Iranian women enter their stadiums" at the Iranian men's volleyball match against Egypt in the 2016 Olympics.

While President Hassan Rouhani and his government are watching from the sidelines, the conservative ayatollahs are creeping to the center stage by having the final say in matters of social freedoms.

A governmental entity, Social-Cultural Council of Women and Family, SCCWF has admitted that it has taken a debate on the question of women’s presence at sports arenas, off its agenda, after a “grand ayatollah” openly raised his opposition.

Grand ayatollahs are considered “sources of emulation” (marja’a) for Shiites on religious and behavioral matters. As Islam and especially Shiism tend to closely regulate individual and social life and relations, the role of senior clerics becomes a deciding factor.

“We respect the opinions of sources of emulation as the final verdict; therefore, the scheduled debate on the question of women attending sports events at the stadia is taken off our agenda since ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has declared it ‘irrelevant’”, SCCWF public relations department announced.

Echoing ayatollah’s remark, SCCWF said in a statement, “As there are many more priorities concerning problems facing the female society, ratifying a resolution on women attending sports arenas is declared irrelevant”.

SCCWF was established in 2010 and most of its members are officials from different entities of power in the Islamic Republic.

The heads of three powers of the ruling system, Qom seminary and Cultural Supreme Council have two representative each in SCCWF.

The head of SCCWF, Zahra Ayatollahi on Friday, October 20 had insisted that the council was set to review the case concerning women attending sports arenas.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, November 29, Qom based ayatollah Makarem Shirazi blasted the debate as a “deviation from real problems”, insisting that the case should never be discussed again.

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.
Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.

“Is our country’s problem women’s attendance at sports arena?”, Makarem Shirazi roared, adding “Our people’s problem is high price of bread, the unemployment of highly educated young people and [the crisis of] the banking system. These are the problems that have devastated our people”.

Another source of emulation, ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani also joined the chorus, labelling women attendance at sports stadiums “incompatible with their chastity”.

Instead of contemplating on whether to allow women enter sports arenas or not, let’s ponder on how facilitate marriage for them, ayatollah Sobhani maintained.

President Rouhani’s staff have repeatedly raised the issue of women being allowed to enter stadiums to watch sports competitions. Nevertheless, women are still barred from entering the arenas in Iran.

The question has turned into one of the most complicated matters facing governments in the Islamic Republic.

In 2006, a handful of women were allowed to enter the stadium and watch Iranian national soccer team’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain, while then president Mohammad Khatami was present.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also wrote an official letter to the Physical Education Organization asking it to facilitate women’s attendance at sports arenas but, his request was shelved after a number of senior ayatollahs opposed the idea.

Banning women from entering stadiums has forced international and Asian sports federations to warn Tehran about the consequences of depriving women from attending sports events.

They have warned that the continuation of the ban could lead to depriving Iran from holding international sports events and even participation.

Therefore, to neutralize the threat, the Islamic Republic’s officials have allowed a number of handpicked women to attend some of the international sports events held in Tehran.

Recently, the male coach of Thailand’s Kabaddi national side made news when he put on a headscarf to pretend to be a woman and entered a women-only sports arena in Tehran. His photos in hijab were widely circulated in social media.

While the Iranian federation claims that the Thai coach sneaked into the stadium wearing the hijab, the coach told Radio Farda that he was told to wear a headscarf if he wanted to get entry.

Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.
Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.