1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Iran's 'morality guardians' determined to curb protests

Farid Ashrafian Krakow
January 20, 2023

Some opponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran have taken their protest to the latest major international sporting event. However, the regime have been just as determined to stop them in Poland as they are at home.

A handball fan holds up a sign reading #Women, Life, Freedom at a handball match
Some have used the World Championship to express support for anti-regime protests in IranImage: Farid Ashrafian/DW

The ongoing protests against the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran have also been heard in Krakow, where Iran is taking part in the 2023 World Handball Championship, being hosted by Poland and Sweden.

Even though the event is being held thousands of kilometers beyond Iran's borders, the Iranian regime is doing everything it can to discourage – or even physically stop – any form of protest. Among the members of the Iranian handball delegation for the tournament are so-called "morality guardians" who answer directly to the Islamic Republic's Ministry of Information. 

Officially, they are accredited as team supervisors, but their actual work has nothing to do with supporting the players on the court. The morality guardians not only monitor the behavior of the national team players, but they also closely observe their surroundings, particularly the spectators. 

Getting physical with a fan 

One incident during Iran's 34-31 loss to Montenegro showed just how far these morality guardians are prepared to go to suppress what they see as the inappropriate freedom of expression. One of the morality guardians ran up to an Iranian spectator holding up a banner that read "Women, Life, Freedom" and knocked it out of her hand several times. This slogan is closely associated with the protests against the Iranian regime, which were sparked by the death of Jina Mahsa Amini in police custody last September. The incident during the match in Krakow saw several nearby spectators rush to the woman's defense. 

Pouya Norouzinezhad attempts a shot
Pouya Norouzinezhad is a key member of Iran's men's handball teamImage: Tomasz Markowski/REUTERS

DW also overheard the morality guardian in question as he then spoke to Iranian Handball Federation President Alireza Pakdel on his cellphone. He then explained to Pakdel,who was also sitting in the arena, how he had failed in his attempt to get the offending banner removed. 

To sing or not to sing the anthem 

According to information shared with DW by sources who did not wish to be named, almost the entire Iranian national handball team are sympathetic to the protest movement against the leadership of the Islamic Republic. However, as was the case at the World Cup in Qatar, the question of whether or not Iranian players should sing the national anthem, which includes the line: "may the Islamic Republic endure permanently," is a major bone of contention. This line is one reason why a majority of Iranians striving for freedom, democracy, and secularism no longer recognize this anthem as their own. 

However, prior to the matches at the World Men's Handball Championship so far, almost all the Iranian players have sung the anthem – presumably fearing serious consequences if they failed to do so. 

There is a wide range of sanctions that the Islamic Republic could impose on such "offenders," such as freezing their financial assets or banning them from leaving Iran once they have returned. In addition, their family members could also face harassment by the regime. 

Staying silent

Despite such risks, one Iranian player has opted not to sing the national anthem: Pouya Norouzinezhad, a center back who is a key member of the national team.  

Norouzinezhad currently plays for German second-division club Eintracht Hagen, but he previously suited up for several Handball-Bundesliga sides, including one of the country's most successful clubs, VfL Gummersbach. Admittedly, living in Germany may mean that Norouzinezhad is at lower risk than his teammates who reside in Iran.

Asked about his decision not to sing the national anthem, the 28-year-old playmaker told DW that Iran's national handball team were "very close to the people," and that their role at this tournament was to "bring joy to Iranians during their current dire situation." 

Historic success 

This, the team has already done for the sports-loving people of Iran, by qualifying for the main round of the World Men's Handball Championship – something they failed to do in 2015, the only other time they qualified for the tournament.

"We wanted to beat Chile in the group stage and advance. We managed to do that," said Norouzinezhad, referring to the only win Iran would need to advance from Group A. 

"The dream can continue," he added – even though that dream could reach its conclusion as early as this Sunday. Back in Iran, many others continue to work towards a much broader and ambitious dream.

This article was originally written in German and translated by Chuck Penfold