Tehran bars women from watching football matches in stadiums and the government has failed to address this aspect of gender inequality.
Sahar Khodayari, an avid female football fan, succumbed to the self-inflicted burn injuries after the 29-year-old set herself on fire in protest of the prison sentence given to her for attempting to watch a football match in one of Tehran's stadiums in March this year.
In post-revolution Iran, women have been denied access to football stadiums full of male crowds.
Earlier in March, Khodayari sneaked into the Azadi Stadium in Tehran, impersonating a man to watch the UAE’s Al Ain face its Iranian rivals, Estaghlal FC, on the field.
Though she tried her best to disguise her gender, wearing male clothing, she was eventually caught and arrested. She was released three days later.
Six months later, on September 2, the court summoned her for a hearing and sentenced her to a six-month-long imprisonment, pronouncing her guilty of violating the country's hijab laws.
Suffering with bipolar disorder, as per her family testimonies, Khodayari could not reconcile to the prison sentence and took her own life in front of the courthouse. She battled for her life in the hospital for a week but eventually died from severe burns.
“Sahar [Khodayari] set herself on fire not only because of the right to enter stadiums, but also because of the pressure she felt from her traditional family. She was one of eight children of a poor family with no job and no financial security, having a history of mental health problems,” said an Iranian journalist, while speaking to TRT World.
The journalist wished to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals from the Iranian state.
“Being arrested for demanding to enter the stadium was just one of her problems,” the journalist said.
The death has triggered widespread anger amongst Iranians living in Iran and abroad and they hold Tehran’s religious establishment accountable for it. The symbol #BlueGirl has become a popular hashtag on social media, which has been inspired by the blue soccer jersey of the victim. Khodayari’s favourite team was Estaghlal FC and its players also wear blue jerseys.
I received this photos from friend of #SaharKhodayari the #bluegirl who died after setting herself on fire. Her family are under pressure and they are not allowed to give any interview. #FifaStandUp4Sahar her crime was trying to sneak into stadium in Iran where is ban for women pic.twitter.com/i5cvO2PGif— Masih Alinejad 🏳️ (@AlinejadMasih) September 11, 2019
In solidarity with the #BlueGirl cause, Italy's famous club AS Roma changed its logo from yellow and red to blue and yellow.
Will the ban end soon?
The incident has galvanised the calls for ending the women's ban on watching soccer games in stadiums.
“There will come a day in the future when one of Tehran’s largest stadiums will be named ‘Sahar,’ ” said Andranik Teymourian, the former captain of Iran's national football team.
“I think this campaign for letting women enter stadiums will be more amplified,” the Iranian journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told TRT World.
“In my opinion the government is doing whatever it can do for this campaign [to ensure female participation in sports competitions], but the pressure which has mostly been originated outside the country makes the process so hard and expensive [for President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate government],” the journalist said.
The journalist said a campaign dominated by external actors will put the Rouhani government in an odd spot, as hardliners will use the issue as an opportunity to accuse the president of having “surrendered” to foreign powers.
Iran's Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, who is responsible for women and family affairs, reacted to Khodayari's death “with deep regret and sadness,” saying that the government is seeking ways to address the issue.
“At a government meeting on Sunday, the issue was raised and the Minister of Sports and Youth outlined the measures taken to ensure women's participation in sports competitions,” wrote Ebtekar, who became the first female member of the cabinet since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, on Twitter.
But local reports suggest that Iranian authorities have pressured Sahar’s family to stop interacting with the media and rather maintain silence on the issue.
Human rights organisations have called on Tehran to end its football ban on women.
“To our knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world that stops and punishes women seeking to enter football stadiums,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa section.
“This discriminatory ban must end immediately and the international community, including football’s world governing body, FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation, must take urgent action to end the ban and to ensure that women are allowed access to all sports stadiums without discrimination or risk of prosecution or punishment,” Luther said.
Like Amnesty’s Luther, many others also called on FIFA, the governing body of international football, to prohibit Iran from participating in tournaments as long as it continues to exercise the ban on women.
“We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it,” FIFA said in a statement, calling “on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran.”