Iran’s volleyball triumph has created a dilemma for the 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 the unexpected defeat of European hotshots Serbia and Italy.
The away matches against a strong Italy on June 28 and 30 were aired live and watched by millions, but the viewers were treated with two very different broadcasts.
During the first match in Sardinia, state television broadcast footage of the crowds, which included women dressed in T-shirts, tank tops and mini skirts, suitable for the Mediterranean heat.
Television also showed some female Iranian fans, mingling with men, with Iran flags painted on their faces, and in attire publicly banned in the Islamic republic.
The broadcast, as well as another incident where Colombian pop star sensation Shakira was shown on Iranian TV in a short dress cheering husband and Spain football international Gerard Pique, drew the ire of conservatives, staunch advocates of the regime’s interpretation of Islamic sharia 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 avoid heavy make-up and nail polish.
They are also banned from stadiums, and can only attend women-only competitions.
Rules dictate Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) must delete or crop out images of women in un-Islamic clothes in movies or news reports.
However, applying those rules to live sporting events, aired with a seven-second delay, has proved to be more challenging.
The ultra-conservative Ya Lessarat weekly on Wednesday slammed IRIB’s “scandalous” conduct, while outspoken Tehran lawmaker Ali Motahari sharply criticised images that he said did not conform to Islamic rules.
Responding to the criticism, IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami said that 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 is directly appointed by 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 its moral and Islamic values with families, who use the channels as alternatives to the state-controlled television.
Zarghami says he had conferred with clerics who, worried about people tuning over to satellite channels, had 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 on June 30 which Iran lost.
The broadcast of the match was regularly interrupted by replays of points, which led to “viewers glued to the floor watching the game… being irritated by (the censorship),” Zarghami said according to the reformist Shargh daily.
The next away matches, on July 5 and 6, will be against bottom-ranked Cuba, where Zarghami fears the spectators will be dressed even more inappropriately.
“The spectators come from different cultures and (are dressed) differently. The situation will be more sensitive due to the heat,” he said.
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 television 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.
Cleric Rowhani won the June 14 election to succeed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sweeping aside rivals from the conservative camps which have held sway in Iran for the past eight years.
His victory sparked street parties across Iran, with men and women dancing and singing as police looked on.