I’ve covered a lot of protests around the world but what is happening in Iran is really unique.
First, this is no fast-burning flash of fury that could exhaust itself as it takes on the might of a seemingly impenetrable regime. This time — driven by courage and incredible sacrifice — it has powered on for nearly two months and shows no sign of letting up.
Secondly, there is remarkable restraint from the protesters in not responding to the enormous violence of Iran’s security forces with violence of their own. This is all the more remarkable given the large numbers of young people taking to the streets and showing wisdom far beyond their years, and far beyond the comprehension of a brutal, thuggish regime.
The protests were sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after being arrested by the hardline Islamic state’s morality police for incorrectly wearing her hijab. Since then, hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands arrested in a grim, cynical crackdown that seems to have done nothing to stop the tide of protest sweeping through Iran.
It’s a state founded on fear and kept in power for more than 40 years by sickening violence on its own people. And this new spirit of peaceful defiance is exemplified by the behaviour of the Iranian sporting elite, professional athletes from footballers through to climbers through to weightlifters and rollerskaters, who have spent their lives devoted to becoming the best of the best, making it to the national team and competing at an international level.
To reach that pinnacle involves a lifetime of dedication and has earned them hard-won respect for their status from other professional athletes around the world. They have achieved something special, something that family and friends can look at and admire them for. But when you climb so high, you can have a long way to fall. Yet, one after the other, they are throwing it all away for a few seconds in the dangerous spotlight of rebellion to highlight the plight of their fellow citizens and to stand up for something they believe in.
Only this week another brave young woman athlete has risked everything in order to show support for protesters when accepting top sporting honours. Roller skater Niloufar Mardani, 29, chose to not wear a hijab while accepting her award on the first place of the podium at the women’s skating marathon that took place in Istanbul over the weekend with a time of one hour, 25 minutes and 20 seconds — almost 13 minutes ahead of second place. She had notched up records at the 1000m, 10km and 20km events and was in the top 10 of the best speed skaters in the world.
The decision for her not to wear hijab was condemned by the Iranian sporting officials and when she returned, she was forced to make an apology for “not wearing the outfit approved by the ministry”.
Iranian sportswomen are obliged to compete with headscarves, even while during events held abroad. In a statement the ministry continued: “Mardani took part in a skating competition in Turkey without authorisation. She was not wearing the outfit approved by the ministry and she has not been a member of the national team since last month.”
Before she was removed for reasons that remain unknown she had been part of the national team for the best part of a decade, and had started skating at the age of nine before becoming professional.
The protests in which sports people from Iran have been sacrificing their careers and their futures in order to gain a few seconds in the spotlight to put the focus on protests back home have been growing in number.
Even athletes abroad are facing victimisation, for example Iranian bodybuilder and fitness trainer Aylin Rauf, 26, who took part in a body beauty contest in Turkey and is currently remaining there has been given death threats by phone and had to break off contact with her family for fear they would be persecuted.
Her protest follows on from criticism of climber Elnaz Rekabi who was reprimanded for failing to wear a headscarf at an event in South Korea last month. (ElnazForcedMeeting)
The entire Iranian water polo team declined to join in singing the national anthem in the first match of the “Asian championship”, and Iranian player Saeed Piramoon showed solidarity with protestors by imitating cutting his hair during the final of the Intercontinental Beach Soccer Cup in Dubai.
There have been numerous other sports people also sanctioned. Iran’s Skating Federation coach was arrested by security forces after footage emerged of her carrying a placard.
The footage -which surfaced on social media — showed Mahsa Yazdani, from Iran’s Talesh county, demonstrating in Talesh on 26th October.
Her placard bears the slogan ‘Zen, Zendegl, Azadi’ — for ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ with her hair apparently uncovered.
Footballer Ali Karimi with over 13 million followers on Instagram was another that condemned the suspicious circumstances of the death of Mahsa Amini, writing that “not even holy water could wash away this disgrace”.
And in the country, some of these athletes have been joining in the protests on the ground, including two Iranian bodybuilders, one of whom was shot and then arrested without being hospitalised, and the second who was shot and killed.
The bodybuilder who died, Erfan Nazari, suffered such horrific head injuries it was not possible to physically identify him. Local media reported that he had been snatched after taking part in anti-government protests in the capital Tehran three days ago and his family have now been told to come and collect his body by cops.
It was claimed that he had been tortured before being shot in the head.
His death follows the arrest of Kurdish bodybuilder Reza Olfati who was reportedly arrested in the western Kermanshah province when dozens of security agents raided the house where he was visiting a friend on 30th October.
The point about this is that we have an obligation in the media to recognise the incredible bravery and sacrifice, and provide coverage.
This is not a call for an attack on the regime or activism disguised as journalism. Reporting needs to be independent and agenda free. It is simply a call for reporting the facts and acknowledging the bravery of these men and women who are sacrificing everything for something they believe in.
They throw away a lifetime of effort for a simple gesture that, had they not made it, would have ensured rewards back home. Instead, everything they have worked for their entire lives is being cast aside to face imprisonment, torture, and even death. That threat doesn’t just apply to them, it applies to their families as well.
It has to be an obligation on all of us in the media to recognise that and to report it so that the sacrifice means something.
The news today that Iran International — the independent Persian language news service in London which has done such a great job of spreading many of these stories — has been declared a terrorist organisation should further strengthen that desire.
Every time one media group is branded a terrorist organisation, five others should take their place. Every time a journalist is arrested, it should inspire others to take up the mantle.
Only then can the arrest of journalists, the intimidation of independent media and restrictions on Internet access to hide the truth become strategies that no longer work, and the sacrifice of the few for the many can be properly recognised.