Iran made headlines this month not just because of its Olympic achievements, but also because of its unprecedented decision to choose a female athlete – trailblazing wheelchair archer Zahra Nemati, a former Paralympic gold medalist who qualified for Rio – as its flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics. Although Nemati was eliminated from the Olympics by Russian archer Inna Stepanova, she went down in history as the Islamic republic’s first female flag-bearer – and as an inspiration to women and disabled athletes worldwide.
A taekwondo athlete paralyzed in a car accident at age 18, Nemati wasn’t the only Iranian athlete to stand out in Rio: Iranian weightlifter Kianoush Rostami broke his own world record to win gold in Rio, and the Iranian men’s volleyball team qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 52 years. But while it was the men’s team that secured the Olympic spot, not all eyes were on the athletes themselves, with some outlets (including the @OpenStadiums Twitter handle) focusing on the spectators rather than the players – specifically female volleyball spectators, who in Iran would have been banned from the stadiums and barred from watching the matches.
With the case of “volleyball prisoner” Ghoncheh Ghavami – the British-Iranian dual citizen who was incarcerated for five months for the crime of watching a volleyball match – still fresh in the public consciousness, and with Iran stepping up its crackdown on women’s rights activists, it seems doubly significant and tragic that Iranian women were able to watch their team play (many of them for the first time) only “from a world away.” Several news outlets thought so too, running in-depth pieces on the Iranian female volleyball spectators who came all the way to Rio to cheer their national team on, “for every woman who couldn’t be there” to witness the “special moment.” A shame they are not able to do the same back home.