Sajedeh Norouzi jumped to her feet, both arms reached high into the air, beaming as she waved a small Iranian flag from side to side at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Again and again.
She waved at every chance. She waved for every woman back home who couldn’t be there alongside her at Maracanazinho arena cheering for the men’s volleyball team in its Olympic debut – her first time in a sports stadium because in Iran women aren’t allowed to attend all-male sports events.
The 27-year-old Norouzi, wearing a beautiful navy blue headscarf decorated with flowers of pink, yellow, orange and turquoise, insists she represented all of the other Iranian women Sunday night who are fighting to one day cheer their teams from the stands and not the TV.
She had a purpose, and a passion, that she could release at long last sitting beside men who have been able to attend the games all along.
“We want to go to the stadium because the government doesn’t allow us to. I want to cheer my team!” Norouzi said, sitting alongside husband Saeed Javdaniyan in a lower section of seats across the court from the team benches of Iran and Argentina.
She was overwhelmed by the special moment, one she couldn’t have envisioned even a year ago. Iran lost in straight sets.
“Very, very much,” Norouzi said. “I’ve never been in the stadium.”
She and her husband have been in Brazil for four months to study, living in Copacabana.
Norouzi called the opportunity for her to be in the arena “really, really big” and an important one to show support from afar for those Iranian women who wanted nothing more than to attend the Rio Olympics.
“I think so,” she said, “every woman wants to see the Games.”
One of those female sports fans? A 32-year-old Iranian woman working with a group called Open Stadiums to push for access. The group’s Twitter handle has become an underground voice of advocacy for women pushing to end discrimination.
“I really wish I could watch it in stadium. It’s been very long time that I couldn’t watch their matches live,” she wrote to The Associated Press on Sunday, declining to be identified publicly out of concern for retaliation.
From a world away, she watched the match over a very early breakfast with her mother and two sisters after only four hours of sleep. They had tea and ate cheese with freshly baked bread, butter and jam.
The match on Sunday in Rio started shortly after 6 a.m. in Tehran, thus the early start to the day. The trip also is a challenging one for many Iranians: a 23-hour flight costing approximately USD 2,500.
In 2012, the longtime ban on women from football matches in Iran was extended to volleyball. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last year called the ban “ridiculous” and said that nations that are part of international bodies should respect women’s rights.
Women have been fighting for months and years to change a long-standing tradition of women being barred from attending male-only sporting events in Iran – efforts by authorities to enforce strict interpretations of Islamic norms.
It’s an issue that came up yet again as the 10th-ranked Iranians prepared for their first appearance in volleyball at an Olympics.
For last month’s World League tournament at the Azadi Sport Complex in Tehran, some Iranian women unsuccessfully attempted to purchase tickets. A group trying make events more open said the tickets weren’t available despite multiple efforts to buy them online. From the moment tickets became available, the website for sales said the female allotment had been filled, according to several women who say they tried to purchase tickets.
The International Federation of Volleyball, Switzerland-based FIVB, made a statement at the time that the Iranian federation said the first-day matches sold out within five minutes, and that 466 of the 5,000 tickets were allotted for a section set aside for women. Women were shown in the stands via livestream, but the section appeared smaller than 466 and it was unclear if the women were members of the general public or invited guests and VIPs. A female announcer handled substitutions during Iran’s match.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have closely tracked the situation, and the chairwoman of USA Volleyball has even been outspoken in support of the women. USA Volleyball chair Lori Okimura even brought her “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums” T-shirt along to Brazil.
The women in Iran stay hopeful. They remain spirited about their sports teams.
And, for now, those who can’t actually be in Brazil are here in spirit. “We say in Persian, ‘my soul fly’ for that photo of stadium!” the woman behind Open Stadiums wrote.