Since the assassination of Mahsa Amini on September 13, 2022, there have been non-stop protests and demonstrations across Iran. For anti-Iranian regime protesters, the consequences were extreme: concerns about the death penalty, human rights abuses and police harassment were all contentious issues in global discussions. Amplifying these problems on a global scale has been extremely difficult given the regime’s strict internet surveillance and threats against journalists. However, by leveraging global participation and media coverage in sports culture, Iranian athletes have fueled the need for reform in their country. Their positions on the global stage are essential for international support and attention – but they can just as easily misuse that coverage, or worse, redirect it in support of the Iranian regime. Who these athletes express their solidarity with will have a major impact on the global stage, given the tremendous reach and involvement that sports culture brings.
Iran’s participation in the 2022 FIFA World Cup was extremely controversial. Especially given the protests in Iran, alleged military aid to Russia and a photo of the team “smiling and joking around at a pre-tournament photo shoot”, many activists have had issues with the Iranian team taking part. The team also met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi before heading out to the World Cup, which understandably drew criticism from protesters. Although some players have shown forms of resistance, such as covering their national team emblem on their jerseys during their match against Senegal, their allegiance has been up for debate.
Amplifying these problems on a global scale has been extremely difficult given the regime’s strict internet surveillance and threats against journalists.
Other members of Iranian football team affiliates have expressed more explicit forms of resistance, whether by boycotting the World Cup or using social media to show solidarity. Some of Iran’s greatest soccer players, such as Ali Daei and Ali Karimi, declined to take part in the World Cup in Qatar. Sardar Azmoun, one of the team’s star players, refused to celebrate after scoring against Senegal, declaring on his Instagram Story: “It’s worth sacrificing for a strand of Iranian women’s hair. Shame on you who kill people so easily. Long live the Iranian woman.” Despite his disapproval of the regime, Azmoun ultimately represented Iran in the game against Senegal. Of course, anything these players say puts their lives at risk – but hopefully these players will continue to show solidarity with Iranian women. Seizing the global stage at a time like this could be a way to resist the regime. Ambiguity about their allegiances – with some actions in favor of the Iranian regime and others against it – can end up harming the Iranian people.
However, the side surprised many viewers when they refused to sing the national anthem in Monday’s game against England. According to Aljazeera, footballers from England joined their opponents by kneeling in “protest against racism and inequality”. Such an act of solidarity is a step in the right direction – while there is undoubtedly work to be done, her refusal to sing caught international media attention and inspired dozens of articles within hours of the screening. This kind of media attention can leverage the global stage for good, but it will take continued and sustained effort to make it truly effective.
This kind of media attention can leverage the global stage for good, but it will take continued and sustained effort to make it truly effective.
Other teams such as Iran’s beach soccer, water polo and volleyball teams have also refused to sing the national anthem. In a game against the United Arab Emirates, the Iran beach football team refused to sing the national anthem and did not celebrate after winning the championship. In addition, Saeed Piramoon, one of the beach football team members, pretended to cut his hair after scoring a goal, a reference to the demonstrations by women who cut their hair in solidarity with Mahsa Amini. Although there have been reports that Piramoon will be penalized by the Republic of Iran’s Beach Football Committee (FFIRI), it is not yet clear what that will mean. As a male athlete of world renown, Piramoon is not exempt from regime penalties, but has privileges that many commoners do not have. These kinds of gestures are integral to when the world is watching.
A week after the beach soccer team refused to sing the national anthem, the Iranian water polo team did the same at the Asian Water Polo Championships in Vietnam. Iran’s volleyball team also joined the movement before and after winning their championship match in Sarajevo. With silence gestures from the players, the Iranian regime has repeatedly threatened to punish athletes who bring politics onto the pitch. According to Iran International, the government-backed newspaper Iran Daily threatened the United Arab Emirates (the hosts of the beach football competition) with “the consequences” if they failed to quell anti-regime dissent. The meaning of singing (or not singing) the national anthem is directed not only against the Iranian regime, but also against the culture, standards and abuses they stand for. These actions have rightly been interpreted as resistance against the regime, but also create solidarity based on sports culture. For any athlete or fan, the shared notions of loyalty, teamwork and dedication are the essence of the beauty of the sport. Violating any of these principles – whether on or off the field – could be a criminal offense for anyone watching.
Iranian women athletes deserve special recognition for what they have done and how much they are putting at risk. Parmida Ghasemi, an Iranian archer, took off her hijab for the awards ceremony. Although Ghasemi later corrected the interpretations in an Instagram post, it sparked much controversy about the meaning of the mandatory hijab as it was the reason behind Mahsa Amini’s murder. Another athlete, climber Elnaz Rekabi, competed in the Asian Sport Climbing Championships in Seoul without her hijab. Her decision to do so led to her absence from social media and concerns about her safety. If she returns to Iran, she also risks imprisonment, fines and extreme penalties.
With the Mahsa Amini protests clearly rooted in gender-based harassment and subordination, it doesn’t take much for female athletes to appear rebellious and face extreme punishment.
The unfortunate but important difference between men’s and women’s resistance actions exposes them to different risks. With the Mahsa Amini protests clearly rooted in gender-based harassment and subordination, it doesn’t take much for female athletes to appear rebellious and face extreme punishment. Whether it’s an inappropriate uniform or the intentional or accidental removal of the hijab, Iranian female athletes risk their lives for their profession whether they want to or not. The privilege of competing alone is something very few people are granted.
As the protests in Iran continue, the bravery and solidarity of these athletes should be commended and taken seriously. Whether for the players involved or fans from home, sport is a great way to build community, compassion and character. Sports culture attracts people from all parts of the world, with different knowledge about international politics or the situation in Iran. While there has always been debate about incorporating politics into sport, it shouldn’t even be up for debate when human lives are at stake. The global stage is both a political and an educational tool, and Iranian athletes deserve to use it as such.
Photo credit: http://www.teammelli.com
Photo Caption: IRAN national football team in game against Kuwait, 1977