Banning stadiums at home, Iran women go to World Cup

Banning stadiums at home, Iran women go to World Cup

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — For Maryam, 27, a ticket to the World Cup was a precious gift. A sports fan, she traveled from Tehran to Qatar for the World Cup to watch Iran’s first match against England on Monday, her first live soccer match.

In Iran, women are prohibited from participating in men’s competitions.

“I have never participated in a football match in my life, so I have to take advantage of this opportunity.” Maryam, who participated in the pageant like other Iranian women, declined to give her last name for fear of government reprisals.

Iran is competing in the World Cup as a major women’s protest movement swept through the country. According to human rights activists in Iran, security forces violently suppressed the protests, killing at least 419 people.

The unrest was caused by the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s moral police on September 16. It first focused on the state-mandated hijab, or hijab, for women, but has since become one of the most serious threats since the tumultuous years following the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

“A major achievement for the protesters would be to have the choice to wear the hijab,” Maryam said. Her brown hair fell over her shoulders and ran long behind her. “But after this, women will march for their rights in the stadiums.”

In an effort to limit large gatherings, Iran has closed all soccer matches to the public since the protests began. The reason for officials’ fears was revealed when fans filtered into Doha’s Khalifa International Stadium on Monday. Many Iranian fans wore T-shirts or signs printed with the uprising’s mantra – “Women, Life, Freedom.” Others wore T-shirts bearing the names of female protesters who have been killed by Iranian security forces in recent weeks.

The World Cup in Qatar, just a short flight across the Persian Gulf from Iran, has emerged as a focal point for Iran’s political mobilization. Demonstrators even called on FIFA to ban Iran from the competition due to restrictions on women in football stadiums and the government’s crackdown.

The question of whether to root for the national team has divided Iranians as the team becomes embroiled in the country’s fiery politics. Many now see supporting the Iranian team as a betrayal of the young men and women who have risked their lives on the streets.

“The protest movement has overshadowed football,” said Kamran, a linguistics professor who lives in the northern province of Mazandaran. “I want Iran to lose these three games.”

Anusha, 17, whose high school in Tehran was destroyed by the protests, said the unrest of the past few weeks had changed everything for her.

“A few months ago I said that of course I want Iran to win against England and America,” she said. “Now, that’s weird. I don’t really care.”

Others insist that the national team, which includes players who have spoken out in solidarity with the protests on social media, is representative of the country’s people and not its ruling Shia clerics. The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, has called out the protests online. Two former football stars have even been arrested for supporting the movement.

“At the end of the day, I want the players to fulfill their dreams,” Maryam said. “It’s not their fault our society is so polarized.”

The Iranian government, for its part, has tried to persuade people to support their team against Iran’s traditional enemies. Iran play the United States on November 29 – a controversial match that was last played at the 1998 World Cup in France.

Observers note that the players are likely to face pressure from the government not to give in to the protests. Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi asked his government to prepare for possible problems. Iran International, a Saudi-funded Persian news channel that covers Iran’s opposition extensively, reported that Qatari authorities had barred its journalists from the World Cup under pressure from Iran.

Iran’s athletes have been heavily researched so far. When Iranian climber Elnaz Rikabi competed in South Korea without wearing her country’s mandatory hijab, she became a beacon for the protest movement.

“We are waiting for them to show us that they support the people in Iran,” said a 30-year-old Iranian fan based in Ottawa, Canada, about the national team. “Some kind of sign, any way they can.”

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