One of Iran’s female vice-presidents launched a furious attack on Saturday on “sanctimonious” groups whose threats of violent confrontation at a volleyball match ultimately prompted a clampdown on women spectators.
The remarks from Shahindokht Molaverdi, whose brief covers women and family affairs, could inflame a weeks-long row between the government and conservative opponents of its plans to ease restrictions at sporting events.
Volleyball is highly popular in Iran and Molaverdi last week said a limited number of women would, in contravention of a ban, be allowed to watch two eagerly anticipated matches against the United States in Tehran.
But security officials later contradicted her. Streets surrounding the Azadi Sports Complex were heavily policed before and during Friday night’s first match, with officers forbidding women from going anywhere near the venue.
And although 200 special tickets for women were printed, an Iranian volleyball official said the accreditations had not been authorized by security officials at the arena, and were thus invalid.
A few women pictured on social media watching the match were not Iranian, the Fars news agency reported on Saturday, but members of the Russian, Italian and Hungarian embassies in Tehran.
In the aftermath, Molaverdi, writing on Facebook, hit out at the ban, saying the government had respected the views of religious leaders while trying to respond to “the legal demands of another section of society.”
She criticized groups who said they would spill blood if women were allowed into the stadium, suggesting such opposition came “from those who were denounced two years ago by voters, and who had crawled into their cave of oblivion for eight years.”
The comments — confirmed by Molaverdi’s office as genuine — suggested she was drawing a contrast between the plans of President Hasan Rohani, regarded as a moderate, and the hardline two-term tenure of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Before and after the match women took to Twitter and other social networks using the hashtag #LetWomenGoToStadium in protest, with the row casting a shadow over Iran’s 3-0 victory.
Recent days have seen female volleyball fans branded “prostitutes” and “sluts” on online forums and on posters allegedly distributed in downtown Tehran.
Molaverdi said publication of such notices by “those who call themselves followers of God... and which used words that one loathes to repeat, clearly constitute several offences under the law.”
A “crowd of sanctimonious people who published one notice after another denouncing the modest and decent girls and women of this land” who “talked of confrontation used obscene and disgusting insults that only befit themselves,” Molaverdi wrote on Facebook.
“Even if one day our beloved girls and women forgive this crowd, they will never forget them and keep these days in their historical memory.”
Unlike football and basketball, women were allowed to attend male volleyball matches until a few years ago, and there is no need to change the law, said Molaverdi.
A second match against the United States will take place on Sunday.