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As US faces Iran in World Cup, this is why Iran’s protests matter

Iran world cup
An Iranian woman walks at a football-themed outdoors fair set-up for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, in front of Mellat Park in the north of Tehran, on November 28, 2022. |

As Iran plays the U.S. in the World Cup, there’s likely to be another strong show of support among Iranian fans for those protesting on the streets back in Iran.

The protests in Iran snowballed after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died in police custody following her arrest for allegedly not wearing her hijab head covering properly. Since then, many more have died in the protests, including children. Now, the protests have extended to the fans and even the Iranian players on the World Cup stage in Qatar.

The hijab is emblematic of a draconian dress code in Iran that prevents women from letting their hair down, literally. But it goes much deeper than that. It’s a symbol of the tyranny, discrimination and violent oppression inflicted upon citizens, especially women and girls, since the Iranian Revolution 43 years ago.

As a girl growing up in Iran, I wore my hijab every day, without question. It was part of my culture. Now I see the hijab as so many of my fellow Iranians see it: a symbol of citizens unable to express themselves freely and make their own choices.

The Iranian authorities try to control every aspect of life, down to the smallest details. To own a pet dog and take it to the park is essentially illegal. To dance at a party is an offense that will likely get you locked up. If parents choose a Western name for their newborn baby, they can’t get a birth certificate. Women cannot travel internationally without permission from their husbands or fathers.

Who wants to live like that? Iranians have had enough.

What’s happening now in my homeland, a nation of 86 million people, is no longer just a protest. It’s a cry for change. A new revolution. This fight is not political. This fight is moral. At its roots, this shift is about basic human rights and freedoms. Police violence against Iranian citizens, even torture, is normal practice. People’s lives are on the line.

The authorities encourage fathers to treat their daughters as mere “possessions.” Recently, one father murdered his 16-year-old daughter for going on a date. And he got away with it. This is happening over and over across Iran. That’s why thousands of young women protesters are unleashing their fury upon their hijabs.

The era of control is slipping

The failing grip of Iran’s authorities is also seen in the mass rejection of the autocratic system that it’s built on. As a result, in 2020, only a third of Iranians identified as Muslim, and almost a quarter didn’t claim to follow any religion.

The nation’s young people struggle to embrace faith in God because they’ve known religion only as a cruel weapon used against them.

As a presenter and producer with faith-based media network SAT-7, I host live Persian-language shows broadcasting directly into Iran via satellite and streamed on social media. Ours is an open platform for discussion on all topics. Every week, Iranian viewers of all faiths as well as viewers of no faith, engage in conversation with us on their phone apps. Many even ask for prayer.

We cannot be silent

As a Christian, I believe we cannot be silent about those suffering injustice and oppression. We must be their voice when their voices are silenced. We must be brave to go out and change the world, even at a cost to ourselves.

It is painful because due to my human rights advocacy and Christian faith, I’m not welcome in my own country. Now living in the U.K., I cannot visit Iran for fear of arrest. I couldn’t even be there when my dad took his final breath. 

My hijab is gone. But I’m still not truly free. I long for the day when standing on Iranian soil with the Persian breeze blowing through my hair, I can freely and openly dance, worship and live as I choose.

Today, as the U.S. faces Iran on the biggest sporting stage on Earth, this is why Iran’s World Cup protests really matter.

Sally Momtazi, a native of Iran, is now based in the U.K. She’s a producer and presenter with SAT-7 (www.sat7usa.org), a multimedia faith-based network broadcasting across the Middle East and North Africa.

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