TEHRAN — Women have been "forbidden" from watching Iran play the U.S. volleyball team on Friday night despite the government signaling it would loosen restrictions on females attending sports events.
Earlier this month, Iran's Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi announced that a limited number of women — mainly members of players' families — would be allowed at upcoming men's volleyball matches. In an interview with The Associated Press, Molaverdi said women could also now watch live basketball, handball and tennis. However, women would not be allowed to attend soccer, swimming and wrestling.
Hardliners objected angrily to her comments.
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A group of basij militia held a "prayer protest" outside the sports ministry on Tuesday and deeply conservative groups have threatened to "spill blood" if women try to attend Friday's game.
And in a clear sign of back-pedaling, the state-run ISNA news service on Friday quoted an official from Iran’s volleyball federation as saying “the entry of women at volleyball matches is forbidden.”
She was charged with spreading anti-regime propaganda and spent the next five months in jail. Ghavami was subsequently released but is not allowed to leave the country. Iranian authorities insisted the case had nothing to do with volleyball.
Nonetheless, the incident resulted in the International Volleyball Federation to call for Iran to allow women to attend all games or lose the right to host international tournaments.
And over the course of the last six months, the government of Hassan Rouhani has indicated it wants to loosen the restrictions on women attending sports events — which date back to the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The U.S. and Iran rarely face each other, let alone with one being the home team. Friday's visit also marks the first time the American volleyball team has visited Iran.
The rivals will face each other at the 12,000-seat Azadi Sports Complex.
Ali Arouzi is NBC News' Tehran bureau chief and correspondent.