RIO DE JANEIRO — She took on the IOC. And she won.
Two days after being reduced to tears when she was asked to remove her sign from a volleyball match, activist Darya Safai returned to the same area on Monday, sign in hand. She sat in the front row. She unfurled her banner.
And she stayed.
“Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums,” the sign read. Women in Iran have not been allowed to attend all-male sporting events since 1979, and Safai, who said she served time in prison for student protests, wanted to do something about it.
She lives in Belgium now and works as a dentist, but she saw the Olympics as the perfect opportunity to see her favorite sport and to send a message on behalf of all the Iranian women (and men) who want change.
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The problem: The International Olympic Committee bans all political signs.
Yes, booing a Russian swimmer for failing a drug test is fine, but holding up a political sign is not.
Safai was told to remove her banner and leave the arena on Saturday, and for a moment she burst into tears. After some wrangling, officials allowed her to continue with the sign.
The big test would be Monday, when she vowed to return.
“The stress was a lot,” she told Yahoo Sports, “but the joy was a lot. There was a lot of positive feedback, from everywhere around the world, from people of different countries, in Portuguese, French and English. You see a lot of people saying, ‘You go, you are right.’ My heart was very warm with that.”
And then a notable thing happened: nothing.
Safai unfurled the sign again here on Monday, and cameras whipped around to photograph her again, and no one told her to leave.
Then it got even more interesting. Other fans started asking for photos. Some wanted selfies. Others got behind the sign with her. One even offered to help hold up the sign. It got to the point where a Brazilian fan arrived with an anti-impeachment sign and raised that up.
Again, nothing happened.
Organizers asked a volunteer who spoke Farsi to attend Safai’s section, just in case any conflict arose. She said as long as Safai posed no distraction to the athletes, she would be allowed to stay.
Safai was soon crying again: tears of joy.
She got the inspiration for her protests back in the late ’90s, when Iran won a soccer match and women poured into the streets to celebrate. “No one could control us,” she said. “We went on the street because we couldn’t go inside the stadium. I said, ‘One day I‘ll do that.’ ”
She kept her idea alive after leaving Iran for Belgium in 2000, where she saw women and men side by side in the stadiums. “Look at them,” she thought to herself, “there are women who are like you. Why not do something? Let the people know about it.”
She has been doing that ever since. She is 41 now and here, at the Olympics, she has become a voice for change not only in Iran but elsewhere around the world.
“I’ve been threatened lots of times,” she said, “but I don’t care. Everyone should say the same things, then the danger is less. If you are afraid and silent, then they win. Women are human; it’s so simple.”
The day did not go seamlessly. Late-arriving fans were shown to the seats nearby where Safai was sitting, which she thought might have been an attempt to get her to move. (It could have also been because those seats were close to the court.) By the end of the match, Safai had indeed moved – but not very far. She remained in the front row.
Even after the match ended, Safai took requests for photos. One volunteer shouted, “Obrigado!” or Portuguese for “thank you.” Two other volunteers walked briskly across the court for a picture.
“This is something where Iranian women can say, ‘This is the front line,’ ” she said.
Iran lost the match. But Safai won something greater.