The Athletic

Iranian women fans fear state ‘watchers’ will spy on them at World Cup matches

The woman was becoming hysterical, standing in front of the Khalifa International Stadium and sobbing.

She’s Iranian, and although she no longer lives in the country, she thought she recognized someone who does: a man she believed to be an Iranian government official who she saw filming her with others. women before and during England’s 6-2 win over Iran. at the World Cup.

Where am I safe?

Another – we haven’t identified any of the women in this article to protect their safety – said she saw a man in the stands on Monday with binoculars, constantly looking at the crowd rather than the pitch. She describes another man in a suit alone, apparently filming a group of women in hijabs behind him, then moving elsewhere, apparently to watch other sections of supporters.

Iranian women activists expected these so-called “watchers” or “spies” to be in Qatar and they claim they represent the Iranian state.

Women cannot legally attend football matches in Iran. Yet they can in Doha, and yet here at the World Cup many still feel watched and controlled, and they worry about the possible repercussions. Complaints have been reported online through FIFA’s human rights complaints procedure, which allows people to submit reports online for an “independent expert assessor” to review.

Human rights researcher Emma Walley said: “At the end of the day, football is meant to be for everyone. Iranian women are in a country where they are allowed to attend football matches, but instead they can still be controlled.

Open Stadiums, a movement to end discrimination against women in Iran, wrote to FIFA in September calling for Iran’s expulsion from the tournament and addressing the issue.

“Without consequences against the Iranian FA and its leadership,” the letter reads, “we also rightly fear that once the FIFA World Cup is over in December, the Islamic Republic will take revenge on women’s rights activists. of Open Stadiums and female football fans in general.”

Anti-regime protests have taken place across Iran since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September. She died after being arrested by Iran’s ‘morality police’, a force employed by the state to enforce Islamic dress code, as she left a metro station after being accused of not covering up the hair properly.

Iran faces the United States on Tuesday. Iran’s first two matches at the World Cup – a 6-2 loss to England and a 2-0 win over Wales – were dominated by pro and anti-government supporters using the platform of a major tournament to make their feelings heard. .

Iran’s players opted out of singing the national anthem – an act which was censored by Iranian state television – before facing England. Many moved their lips when it was played as Iran prepared to face Wales, but the anthem was roundly mocked by many in the stands.

Women and men also say they have been arrested in Qatar for wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” inside World Cup stadiums. Others say they were told to take them off before they could go through security.

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Articles containing “political, offensive or discriminatory messages” are prohibited in tournament stadiums and security is organized by the host country rather than FIFA.

“Women’s human rights are a universal right,” said a spokesperson for Fare, a football anti-discrimination network. “Whether they speak in a public square, a football stadium or on the street, we respect the right of women to assert them.

“The fact that very innocuous banners and T-shirts have been removed from stadiums during this World Cup and some people say they have been arrested as a result is a huge cause for concern.

“Some of those targeted also claim Iranian state forces are present to ensure banners and T-shirts are removed. We have no explicit confirmation of this.

There are close ties between Iran and Qatar. In December 2017, the Iranian and Qatari football federations signed a memorandum of understanding to “strengthen Qatari-Iranian relations”, according to Mehdi Taj, president of the Iranian Football Federation. The timing was significant, just three months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism – a claim Qatar strongly denies.

Another four-year “memorandum of collaboration” was concluded in December 2021, after the end of the blockade, allowing Iran and Qatar to work together to organize friendly matches and training camps.

Walley said: “It will be interesting to see in the US game (against Iran), how many people try to wear T-shirts or have banners and things to show their support? Because actually people are maybe more scared now.

“I think, like in the context of sport and human rights, if people don’t feel like they can have security for this game, then what’s the point? Sport should be a place where people have a platform to exercise their right to freedom of expression.

“It’s really powerful when you have something like the World Cup and so many people are watching, these women want to spread their message because they know everyone is watching. It shows even more clearly that the sport and the human rights cannot be separated.

A Qatari government official said: “For the safety of all World Cup participants, the State of Qatar has ensured that enhanced security measures are put in place at matches with notable tensions among the players. supporters, including those involving the Iranian football team.

“Before each game, a risk assessment is carried out and security resources are deployed in each stadium accordingly. As in all World Cup tournaments, items that could increase tension and endanger the safety of fans are not permitted.

“All security personnel at the stadiums are under the State of Qatar and are there to ensure the safety of all present. No Iranian security personnel work within the Security and Safety Operations Committee ( SSOC) for the World Cup.

“There were no notable incidents in Iran’s first game against England. After Iran’s second game, security teams were called in to break up a small number of altercations at the outside the stadium between Iranian fans. These incidents were dealt with promptly and with appropriate force to defuse tensions and ensure the safety of all fans attending the match. Officials will continue to ensure that every World Cup match of Qatar is safe and welcoming for all spectators.”

FIFA, the Iranian FA and the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy have also been contacted for comment.

(Top photo: FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images)

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