TEHRAN – Iran’s triumphant volleyball run has created a dilemma for its state broadcaster, which is struggling to tailor its coverage of matches — attended by scantily dressed women — to the moral guidelines of the Islamic republic.
Competing for the first time in the FIVB Volleyball World League, Iran is seen as the underdog. But sports-mad Iranians have fallen head over heels for the game after European hotshots Serbia and Italy were unexpectedly defeated.
The away matches against a strong Italy on Friday and Sunday were aired live and watched by millions back in Iran, but viewers were treated to two very different broadcasts.
During the first match in Sardinia, state TV broadcast crowd footage of women dressed in T-shirts, tank tops and miniskirts — attire suitable for the Mediterranean heat. The images also showed some female Iranian fans, the national flag painted on their faces, mingling with men and wearing clothing that is publicly banned in the Islamic nation.
The broadcast, as well as another incident in which Colombian pop sensation Shakira was shown on Iranian TV in a short dress cheering her husband, Spanish soccer star Gerard Pique, drew the ire of conservatives, who staunchly advocate the regime’s interpretation of Islamic Shariah law, which has been enforced since the 1979 revolution.
Women in Iran, regardless of their nationality or religion, are required to cover their hair and body and to shun the use of heavy make-up and nail polish. They are also banned from sports stadiums, and can only attend women-only competitions.
Rules dictate that Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting delete or crop out images of women clad in un-Islamic clothes in movies or news reports. However, applying those rules to live sporting events, aired with just a seven-second delay, has proved to be more challenging.
The ultraconservative Ya Lessarat weekly on Wednesday slammed the IRIB’s “scandalous” conduct, while outspoken Tehran lawmaker Ali Motahari sharply criticized images he said did not conform to Islamic rules.
Responding to the criticism, IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami said boycotting live matches would only compel viewers to turn to satellite channels.
“In (live) situations, it is out of our hands. The only solution would be not to broadcast the game at all,” said Zarghami, who was directly appointed by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If we do that, the viewership will turn to satellite (dishes).”
Iran considers hundreds of channels beamed onto its airwaves as part of a “soft war” launched by the West to corrupt the moral and Islamic values of Iranian families, who use the channels when seeking alternatives to state-controlled TV.
Zarghami said he had conferred with clerics who, worried about people tuning to satellite channels, advised him to broadcast but under “controlled” conditions. “Parts of the play were cut and replaced with repeats,” Zarghami said of the second away game against Italy that Iran lost Sunday.
The broadcast of that match was regularly interrupted by replays of points, which resulted in “viewers glued to the floor watching the game . . . being irritated by (the censorship),” Zarghami said, according to the reformist Shargh daily.
The Iranian team’s next away matches, later Friday and on Saturday, will be against bottom-ranked Cuba, where Zarghami fears spectators will be dressed even more inappropriately, he said: “The spectators come from different cultures and (are dressed) differently. The situation will be more sensitive due to the heat.”
Zarghami added jokingly that he wants to “negotiate with our Cuban cultural counterparts to dress the spectators in tracksuits to resolve this problem.”
His remarks come as President-elect Hassan Rowhani, who will take office in August, has expressed willingness to ease restrictions on state TV and online censorship. “The majority of the young people have turned their back against state television because they see it lacking sincerity, morality and justice,” Rowhani was quoted as saying in a recent Shargh interview.
Rowhani, a cleric, won Iran’s June 14 election to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sweeping aside rivals from the conservative camps. His victory sparked street parties across Iran, with men and women dancing and singing as police looked on.