There have been nationwide protests in Iran for months over the country's treatment of women, particularly after the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing a hijab too loosely and later died in police custody. Many Iranian athletes and celebrities have backed the protestors, but the football team's decision to remain silent during the national anthem is perhaps the biggest display of support.
This act doesn't appear spontaneous, either. Ehsan Hajsafi, the captain of the Iranian squad, offered his condolences to "all the bereaved families of Iran" following the many arrests and deaths (including 58 Iranian children) in the fallout from the protests. Hajsafi added that "we are with them and sympathize with them."
"We are here but it does not mean that we should not be their voice, or we must not respect them," Hajsafi said. "Whatever we have is from them. We have to fight, we have to perform the best we can and score goals, and present the brave people of Iran with the results. And I hope that the conditions change to the expectations of the people."
IMPORTANT 🇮🇷 Ahead of their game against England, Iran’s captain Ehsan Hajsafi becomes the first Iranian player to speak out in support of women’s rights protesters in his home country, expressing condolences to families who’ve lost loved ones.pic.twitter.com/iyOiZ9cikl
— Men in Blazers (@MenInBlazers) November 21, 2022
Iranian fans protested in the stands
While the players remain silent on the pitch, fans in the stands stayed loud as their own form of protest.
Some fans were even heard booing the national anthem, while others carried banners and flags similar to the Iranian flag that read "Woman. Life. Freedom." Other fans were denied entry to the game for displaying a Persian flag instead of an Iranian one, according to the New York Times. (The difference between the flags is that the Persian one is adorned with a lion and sun in the center while the Iranian flag has a red Islamic emblem with Kufic script written above and below).
Iran fans with a message before their World Cup opener: pic.twitter.com/icJ8E250wN
— B/R Football (@brfootball) November 21, 2022
What BeIN sport and Qatari media refuse to show;
Iran fans show support for the #MahsaAmini protests at their nation's match against England in #Qatar. Protest by Iranian fans - booing their regime's national anthem ahead of match against England. #IranProtests@nytimes @GBNEWS pic.twitter.com/QYSS8rMOs9
— Amjad Taha أمجد طه (@amjadt25) November 21, 2022
Iran 🇮🇷 fans booing their national anthem - freedom for Iran pic.twitter.com/lbKz2dAq5D
— Paul Brown 🇬🇧 Browns fan🏈 London News 🎥Vlogger (@PaulBrown_UK) November 21, 2022
These acts of defiance against the Iranian government on an international stage come with potentially frightening consequences. Iranian professional climber Elnaz Rekabi didn't wear a hijab during an international competition in October and her safety was questioned even after she returned.
On a grander scale, Iran has arrested almost 16,000 protestors and 351 people have died during protests since Amini's death in late September, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency. Iran has also reportedly sentenced three people to death and five others to 5-10 years imprisonment for protesting.