RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Olympic security personnel questioned a female Iranian volleyball fan Saturday when she showed up for a match holding a large sign that read “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums” and wearing a white T-shirt with those same words.
Darya Safai, who sat in a front-row courtside seat at Maracanazinho arena and briefly cried during the ordeal “because it hurts,” said that Olympic officials pushed her to leave the venue but she was determined to stay put.
“They said they didn’t want the sign in front of the cameras and they asked us to leave,” said Safai, who was with friends also wearing the T-shirts. “They even tried to impress me with military people. I think it is a pity they always listen to what the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran says.
“This is not the first time I had this experience but I won’t give up because that’s what Iranian women do, they keep fighting for their rights.”
The International Olympic Committee bans political statements at the games.
“So with all the things that happened here today at Maracanazinho, I stayed inside because it is my right,” she wrote in a text message to The Associated Press.
Born in Tehran and now living in Belgium, the 35-year-old Safai is the founder and director of “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums!” and an activist against gender discrimination. Women have generally been banned or heavily restricted from attending all-male sports events in Iran.
Safai plans to try to bring her cause to Maracanazinho arena again. She wore a headband with the colors of Iran’s flag and also face paint of the flag on each cheek.
“For the next game on Monday we also have tickets and we are going to do the same,” Safai said.
Iran’s volleyball team, in its first Olympics, swept Egypt in the match 3-0 for its second victory in Rio.
In 2012, the longtime ban on women from soccer matches in Iran was extended to volleyball. Women have for years been trying to change the long-standing efforts by authorities to enforce strict interpretations of Islamic norms.
USA Volleyball chairwoman Lori Okimura has been outspoken on the issue — she even brought her own “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums” T-shirt to Brazil — and checked in with Safai on Saturday to make sure she was OK.
“This is not a political statement. This is not a political issue,” Okimura said. “This, to me, is not about politics, it’s about gender. Volleyball has always been about equality, why now are we not sending that same consistent message?”
Women in Iran saw Safai’s efforts on TV and appreciated the solidarity, taking to social media to offer their support.
“The Olympic Spirit, which is against discrimination, is what Iranian women need in their country,” Safai said. “It should be the right of everyone, men and women, to attend a sports game. It is a pity that women have to travel to Brazil to watch and cheer for their national team.”