Sports·Opinion

Iranian women's fight for liberty is cut from similar cloth to women's battle for justice in sports

As the world watches Iranian women bravely take to the streets and resist against powerful men who control their movements and their clothing, it is important to remember that sports has always been political and it must remain intertwined in our conscience.

Desire for accountability, justice is a thread inextricably linked to sports

A woman cuts her hair at a protest
A woman cuts her hair during a protest against the death of Iranian Mahsa Amini, at central Syntagma Square, in Athens, Greece on Saturday. The 22-year-old woman, who died in Iran while in police custody, was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating its strictly-enforced dress code. (Yorgos Karahalis/The Associated Press)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As the large banner was unfurled at Providence Park, I couldn't help but be amazed at the events. I was in Portland for work and attended an NWSL game at the home of some of the most politically and socially outspoken supporters groups in all of sports.

There have been cries for accountability from the front office of Portland's two professional soccer teams — the Timbers and the Thorns — from the Rose City Riveters, Timbers Army and Soccer City Accountability Now (SCAN), who are local supporters groups.

The calls for justice are an ongoing response to the 2021 story from The Athletic's Meg Linehan that rocked the women's soccer world about Paul Riley abusing players on the Thorns while he was coaching, and that owners knew and tried to cover up the events. Groups are also demanding that Merritt Paulson sell the team. Buttons, signs and banners plastered with, 'YOU KNEW,' are very pointed and quite clear. 

I sat with my friend Dr. Jules Boykoff, who is a season-ticket holder for both teams, and he explained how the supporters groups are mobilizing.

The crowd was easily more than half-filled with women and children. As I watched the game, the importance of supporting the team but protesting the ownership and their handling of the matter was not lost on any of us. 

The fact that a soccer stadium could be the place of silent but impactful protest is so critical — particularly with everything else happening in the world with regards to freedom of expression and sports.

Sports are a vehicle of expression and a reflection of the societies we inhabit and how we silence or dismiss certain people. As the Portland Thorns beat the Chicago Red Stars 3-0, the crowd was jubilant. I was wrapped up in this joy. But I couldn't help but think of soccer sisters in Iran who desperately want to exist in the sports ecosystem but have constantly been denied this opportunity from a regime that insists they don't belong. 

Last week, social media was exploding with images of Iranian women taking off and burning their hijabs and cutting their hair in protest of the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was killed after being arrested by the morality police. The state said she died from a heart attack but others, including her family, are alleging that she was beaten while in custody.

Riots have ensued and men and women have taken to the streets to not only protest Amini's death but to reignite sentiments against oppressive laws that restrict mobility (women cannot travel without permission of their husbands) and clothing choices for women in Iran.

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution, women in Iran were not obliged to cover and wear manteaus or long scarves. They had the right to dress how they wanted and travel where they liked. After Ayatollah Khomeini took over, the rules changed. Every aspect of society shifted and that included sports. Iranian women were no longer permitted to attend public sporting events, or represent their countries in sport without covering fully and having permission from their fathers or husbands. 

Iranian women bravely take to the streets

As the world watches Iranian women bravely take to the streets and resist against powerful men who control their movements and their clothing, it is important to remember that sports has always been political and it must remain intertwined in our conscience. Sports is often the ground of organization and collaboration.

I have been following the story of women's exclusion from stadiums for over a decade. I have reported on it extensively and amplified the situation. And I have also actively supported the right of Iranian women to not only choose to (un)cover but to be allowed to participate fully in society. How can half the population be so blatantly excluded?  Some may dismiss this type of resistance. But it is integral to a women's station and how she is valued.

WATCH | Worldwide protests follow Mahsa Amini's death: 

Protests held around the world after death of Mahsa Amini in Iran

2 months ago
Duration 0:51
Protesters in Greece cut their hair and set fire to a headscarf on Saturday after the death of Mahsa Amini following her arrest by Iran's morality police. Demonstrators also gathered in Washington and Berlin to show solidarity with those protesting in Iran.

Sports is the purest form of joy imaginable in a community. The fact that a love of sport runs deeply in the blood of Iranian women is relevant to everything happening in that country.

I reached out to my dear friend, who I will refer to as "Sara," in Tehran. She is one of the most courageous women I have ever known. She has led an organization called Open Stadiums that has been campaigning Iranian officials and FIFA against these restrictions.

Organizations like Open Stadiums have been amplifying the issue for more than 15 years and have worked tirelessly and anonymously for their own safety, to advocate for women to attend matches in Iran. I messaged her to inquire about her safety. "Sara" told me: "I feel the fear and the sadness but we will continue … God help us inshaAllah."

Iran has warned athletes not to comment publicly about the situation in the country, and has gone as far as to restrict media access to international competitions. But a number of state employees, including athletes, have cut ties with their national sports organizations. Taekwondo practitioner Mahsa Sadeghi wrote on her Instagram account: "Out of respect for the dear women of Iran and in hopes of preserving the dignity and individuality of women's lives, I'm saying goodbye to the national team."

I can't help but feel helpless, frustrated and afraid for the women in Iran. Among every other right, they should be able to choose what they want to wear and what events they want to attend. The people protesting in Portland are cut from the same cloth as the ones in Iran. Their desire for accountability and justice is a thread inextricably linked to sports and we see it manifest at Providence Park and outside Azadi Stadium in Tehran. It is from the people. 

That our sports are connected to politics is important because politics are connected to our freedoms and to our safety. If all people are not offered safe participation and liberty there is no point in sports at all. Sports belongs to and is nothing without the people. And yes, that includes women. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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