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Iran's World Cup is Over But Iranians' Fight for "Azadi"—Freedom—Continues | Opinion

Newsweek 12/1/2022 Maryam Shojaei
An Iran's supporter with blood tears make up on her face holds a football jersey reading the name of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died at the hospital after been arrested by the morality police for violating Iran's strict dress code, poses with another supporter holding a flag reading "Woman life freedom" as they attend the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Wales and Iran at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on November 25, 2022. © GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images An Iran's supporter with blood tears make up on her face holds a football jersey reading the name of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died at the hospital after been arrested by the morality police for violating Iran's strict dress code, poses with another supporter holding a flag reading "Woman life freedom" as they attend the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match between Wales and Iran at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan, west of Doha on November 25, 2022.

Iran's World Cup play is over, but the fight for freedom and equality in my country continues. At all three World Cup games where Iran played, protesting fans were able to shine the world's spotlight on Iran's repression of basic human rights.

In September, an Iranian Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini was arrested by Iran's so-called "morality police" for "improper hijab." Her death in custody sparked nation-wide protests in Iran and beyond. In Iran this month, I witnessed courageous male and female protesters—and even schoolgirls—taking to the streets together to demand women's rights, chanting in Persian: "Zan, Zendagi, Azadi!,"which means "Woman, Life, Freedom!"

"Woman, Life, Freedom" are three words that have given us Iranians courage and hope. The World Cup gave these powerful words a global platform. At the last Iran game against the United States, creative protesters held up pieces of paper, spelling out MAHSA AMINI in unmistakable giant capital letters.

The run-up to the World Cup was dominated by rare public protests in Iran, and many Iranian fans said they came to Qatar to keep the protest flame alive. At matches, some Iranians wore T-shirts and carried flags and banners with messages of support for the women protesters. Other fans painted blood on their faces to show the high death toll from government suppression of protests: to date more than 18,000 Iranian protesters have been arrested and more than 450 men, women and even children have died in Iran's ongoing crackdown.

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The large Iranian security presence showed how much the government wants to silence protesters—even outside Iran's borders. Neighboring Qatar has a close security arrangement with Iran, and social media was full of viral posts of Iranian fans wearing or chanting "Woman, Life, Freedom" who were threatened, stopped, and even detained trying to attend the World Cup.

At its first World Cup match, the Iran national soccer team stood in grim silence, refusing to sing the national anthem. At the last match with the United States, Iranian fans at the stadium booed their national anthem and instead chanted the protest rallying cry.

Some of the best Iranian soccer players have been arrested for criticizing the crackdown. In November, top Tehran football team Esteghlal refused to celebrate after winning the Iranian Super Cup, instead dedicating the team victory to "women and those who lost loved ones."

I know first-hand how the World Cup can be a lever for change. I have been demonstrating in international stadiums for years, carrying in my #NoBan4Women banner to overturn Iran's longstanding ban on women and girls in stadiums.

My brother Masoud Shojaei played in three World Cups and was the captain for the Iran team at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Yet for decades, women in Iran—including female family members like me—were banned from stadiums. Although my brother is a professional player, FIFA, the global football federation, never enforced its own rules to force Iran to let women into stadiums. As a result, my sister, mother and I have never seen my brother play in Iran, banned as all Iranian women were since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

It is worth remembering that for the last forty years, the battle for women's rights in Iran has played out through sport, with brave girls dressing as men to attend soccer matches in Iran, risking detention, beatings and arrests by the morality police. In 2019, Sahar Khodayari, a young Iranian female fan was arrested for dressing as a man to watch her favorite team play. When Khodayari learned she would be jailed in Iran's notorious Evin prison for this offense, she set herself on fire and died.

Like Mahsa Amini, Khodayari—now known in Iran as the "Blue Girl," after the color of her favorite club team—became in death a powerful symbol of the fight for gender equity in Iran.

Khodayari's supposed crime was attending a match at the main stadium in Tehran, which is called Azadi Stadium. In Farsi, "azadi" means "freedom." When the former Shah built the mammoth Azadi stadium in 1971, he built it with 100,000 seats and ambitions to host the Olympics. Instead, after the Islamic Revolution, soccer became just another means for the regime to assert control over all elements of Iranian people's lives.

However, today the Iranian government fears public gatherings so much, it has now closed all sports events to the public. This is a sign that the government's efforts to keep Iranian women as second class citizens—an effort now in its third generation—is failing.

The World Cup may be over, but our fight for basic human rights in Iran continues. Instead of crushing voices for reform, the Iranian government must give up its decades of repression and finally allow "azadi"—freedom—for all.

Maryam Shojaei is an activist from Iran who founded the #NoBan4Women movement, which promotes women's rights to attend sports events in Iran. She is the author of a forthcoming book from Seven Stories Press, Azadi Means Freedom, on fighting for women's rights in Iran through sport.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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