You don’t have to be Welsh, Iranian or especially into football to have found good reasons to watch today’s World Cup clash of the two nations. Not because of what happened in the game – two late Iran goals to break Welsh hearts – so much as what preceded it. For the few moments before kick-off offered a brief glimpse of an uprising that may yet become a revolution – an upheaval that not only has enormous implications for Iran, its region and the wider world, but which is also reminding those of us in what we like to think of as the liberal, enlightened west of things we take for granted and may even have forgotten.
The specific focus was the pre-match singing of national anthems. When Iran played England on Monday, the team pointedly refused to sing, a gesture of defiance against their country’s rulers and in solidarity with its people, many thousands of whom have spent the last two months engaged in open revolt against what they see as the corrupt, repressive theocracy that has held power in Tehran for 43 years. Before the match, there had been much debate about whether the England captain should wear an armband to protest against Qatar’s trampling of LGBTQ+ rights; in the end, Harry Kane decided against it, for fear of the referee’s yellow card.
A rather stiffer form of punishment is likely to await the public show of dissent by Iran’s players. A clue was provided on Thursday, when a former player for the Iranian national side who had dared speak out against the regime was arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandising against the government”. Even so, and despite knowing the risks, Kane’s Iranian counterpart gave a press conference this week in which he sent a message of unmistakable support to the protesters back home, speaking “in the name of the God of the rainbows”, the phrase used by a nine-year-old boy killed earlier this month.
He told Iran’s grieving families – and there are many, with an estimated 400 killed by the authorities, including more than 50 children, along with detailed evidence of brutal rape and torture of those detained – “We are with them, and by their side, and share their pain”. When the anthem struck up before the Wales game, most members of the Iranian team, perhaps warned of the consequences for themselves and their families if they repeated the protest, muttered their way through the song. The camera cut to fans weeping, but few would have thought those were tears of sporting joy.
Obviously, the impact of all this matters most in Iran itself. Usually cautious exiles and analysts are openly asking themselves, having seen previous eruptions of discontent, whether this will be the one that, at last, topples the Islamic Republic itself. They point to the differences with rebellions past. How this goes wider and deeper, with protests across the country; how the demonstrators are so young, with the average age of those arrested just 15; how their demands are fundamental and not open to compromise: they are not seeking this or that reform, which the regime, however reluctantly, might accommodate, but want nothing less than the end of the system that has prevailed for four decades. With an ailing supreme leader and the succession far from secured, the republic suddenly looks vulnerable.
Some dream of a swift and peaceful transition to a secular democracy. But others warn that Iran could just as easily descend into being a second Syria. Prof Ali Ansari predicts the authorities’ next move if they feel power is slipping from their grasp: “What they will do is shoot a lot more people,” he told me. Except, this time, the people might shoot back. If weapons come in from Iranian Kurdistan and Balochistan, a civil war is a real possibility.
Any change in Tehran will of course send shockwaves through the region, where Iran has been a key and lethal player in the wars in Syria and Yemen; for years, Tehran has been the threat against which the Gulf states (and Israel) have cohered. Iran matters to the wider world too: look no further than the deadly Iranian drones that have been deployed by Tehran’s ally, Moscow, against Ukraine. And don’t forget the sustained effort, first by US president Barack Obama and then Joe Biden, to secure a deal that might curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
And yet, even if the regional and international politics were to remain stuck, we should still be paying attention to the cry being raised on Iran’s streets. Just as the invasion of Ukraine reminded the west that, for all its flaws and well-documented failings, it is preferable to the alternative – tyranny and aggression, as embodied by Vladimir Putin – so the people of Iran are jogging our memories about the fundamentals.
Recall the incident that started these protests. It began with a young woman, Mahsa Amini, pulled over by Iran’s “morality police” because a few stray strands of hair from underneath her hijab were visible. She was taken into custody where her family say she was beaten to death.
To be clear, this is not about the rights and wrongs of the veil. It’s much simpler than that. It’s about the right to choose, the right of a human being to decide what they do with their own body. That’s why even hijab-wearing women are joining these protests. Because the principle is so clear. It stands against Tehran’s ayatollahs telling women to wear the veil and, with equal vehemence, against the French government telling women not to wear the veil. It is about the human right of autonomy, the freedom of the individual.
“This is a fight for universal values,” says the Iranian writer Maryam Namazie. She is right. This is a battle for liberties so basic, articulated and demanded in the age of the Enlightenment, that many westerners now take those rights entirely for granted. But to the Iranians of 2022, they are new and precious – and out of reach.
That is why it’s so moving to see the banners carrying the slogan of this revolt: Women, Life, Freedom. Or to hear of the female reporters now behind bars for covering Amini’s death. Or to hear of the women who have had enough of courts that regard their testimony as worth exactly half that of a man. Or to read of the ingenuity of protesters covering the lenses of security cameras with sanitary pads, knowing that their tormentors will scarcely dare touch them to remove them. Or to see crowds singing the improvised anthem of their movement.
At a time when there can be great confusion in the west about what feminism is or should be, and when there is often a squeamishness about the application of universal rights everywhere – born of an understandable urge to seem respectful to different cultures, even when the masters of those cultures show no respect to (at least) one half of the human race – it is valuable to be reminded once more of the basics.
The people of Iran are showing the world that people everywhere yearn to be governed by those whom they can elect and throw out, rather than by supposed holy men claiming unique authority to interpret holy texts. That people everywhere yearn to speak, or sing, the sentiment that is in their hearts. That people everywhere yearn to be free.
• This article was amended on 1 December 2022 to clarify the source of the allegation that Mahsa Amini was beaten to death.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist