Iranian soccer fans cheer prior to the World Cup group B match between England and Iran at the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on Monday. AP / Reuters
To 27-year-old Mariam, the World Cup match ticket was a precious gift. A sports fanatic, she travelled to the World Cup in Qatar from Tehran to catch Iran’s opening game on Monday against England, her first live soccer match.Women are banned from attending men’s matches in Iran.
“I’ve never attended a football match in my life so I had to take this chance,” said Mariam, a student of international relations who like other Iranian women at the match declined to give her last name for fear of government reprisals.
An Iranian fan gestures prior to the World Cup group B match between England and Iran. Reuters
Iran is competing in the World Cup as a major women’s protest movement is roiling the country. Security forces have violently cracked down on demonstrations, killing at least 419 people, according Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
The unrest was spurred by the Sept. 16 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the country’s morality police. It first focused on the state-mandated hijab, or headscarf, for women, but has since morphed into one of the most serious threats to the Islamic Republic since the chaotic years following its founding.
Iranian fans cheer prior to the World Cup group B soccer match in Doha. AP
“A big achievement for protesters would be to have the choice to wear the hijab,” said Mariam. Her brown hair draped over her shoulders and ran long down her back. “But after that, women will go for their right to be in stadiums.”
In an effort to restrict large gatherings, Iran has closed all soccer matches to the public since the protests erupted. The reason for authorities’ fear became apparent as fans filtered into the Khalifa International Stadium in Doha on Monday. Many Iran fans wore T-shirts or waving signs printed with the mantra of the uprising – “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Others wore T-shirts bearing the names of female protesters killed by Iranian security forces in recent weeks.
Iranian soccer fans pose for a selfie prior to the World Cup group B match. AP
“The protest movement has overshadowed the football,” said Kamran, a linguistics professor who lives in the verdant northern province of Mazandaran. “I want Iran to lose these three games.”
Anusha, a 17-year-old whose Tehran high school has been rocked by protests, said the past few weeks of unrest had changed everything for her. “A few months ago I would have said of course I want Iran to win against England and America,” she said. “Now, it’s strange. I really don’t care.”
Iranian fans hold up signs reading Woman Life Freedom, prior to the World Cup group B match. AP
Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, is representative of the country’s people and not its ruling Shiite clerics.
The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, has been vocal about the protests online. Two former soccer stars have even been arrested for backing the movement.
“At the end of the day, I want the players to achieve their dreams,” said Mariam. “It’s not their fault our society is so polarised.”