She Wanted to Watch a Soccer Match in Iran. She Died Pursuing Her Dream.
- by NewYorkTimes
- Sept. 10, 2019
Her dream was to watch a soccer match from a stadium in Iran where women are banned from attending most sports events.
She died in pursuit of this dream.
Sahar Khodayari, 29, died in a hospital in Tehran this week from severe burns that covered 90 percent of her body. She had set herself on fire in front of a courthouse on Sept. 2, after being sentenced to six months in prison.
Her crime was sneaking into Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s main sporting venue, in March to watch her favorite team, Esteghlal, play against a team from the United Arab Emirates.
Ms. Khodayari was arrested and spent three nights in jail. Her mobile phone was seized. She was released on bail and told to report to Revolutionary Court in September.
Blue is the color of the Esteghlal team, and as news spread that one of its female fans had set herself on fire, Ms. Khodayari became known on social media as the “Blue Girl.” The hashtag #BlueGirl sprung up, bringing attention to the plight of female soccer fans.
In death, Ms. Khodayari’s name has become an international rallying cry for Iran to end its discrimination against women and allow them entrance to sports events.
Many Iranians, including a former captain of the national team, are calling for a boycott of soccer games until the ban on women attending matches is lifted. Several officials expressed shock and outrage at what happened to Ms. Khodayari.
“Some issues can be resolved simply but we turn them into deep social scars for which we have no answer to history,” said Fareed Mousavi, a lawmaker on the parliament’s youth committee. “We need to rectify these unjust discriminations before it’s too late.”
Masoumeh Ebtekar, President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs — the highest ranking woman in the Iranian government — issued a statement expressing “deep regret and sadness” for Ms. Khodayari’s death. She said her office had appointed a representative to follow the case since news of the burning surfaced, and said the representative had met with the mother and sister of the victim in the hospital.
Ms. Ebtekar said a written report on the case had been submitted to the judiciary on Saturday, and the topic of allowing women in stadiums was discussed in a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The news of Ms. Khodayari’s death spread on Monday, but some Persian news media outlets reported that she had died a few days earlier and was secretly buried without informing the family. Iran has a long practice of denying the family members of people deemed a “security threat” their dead bodies and conducting secret burials to avoid publicity.
Iranian activists say Ms. Khodayari’s family has been threatened and pressured not to speak to the news media.
FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, has warned Iran to lift the ban on women attending international soccer matches by Oct. 10, when the country’s national team — among the top in Asia — is to host a World Cup qualifying game.
In some cases, to relieve pressure from FIFA, Iran has selectively allowed limited number of women, mostly relatives of players or government officials, to attend certain soccer games. But women are not allowed to buy tickets for the events.
“They are basically trying to manipulate FIFA,” said Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “Even though FIFA has been notified of Iran’s repeated violations and manipulation tactics to allow women in, still Iran has gotten away with this discrimination.”
After Ms. Khodayari’s death, FIFA said in a statement, ”We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it.”
In the statement, the group said it repeated its “calls 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.”
Still, many Iranians and human rights activists on Tuesday blamed FIFA for not taking a stronger stand against the ban. International soccer stars tweeted that FIFA should step up and enforce its regulations banning member countries from discriminating against gender and race.
Magdalena Eriksson, a soccer player for Chelsea F.C. Women, a British soccer team, wrote on Twitter: “FIFA or any other organization that’s in a position of privilege and power, you need to act to make this stop!”