For the love of the game: Iranian Sahar Khodayari dies after self-immolating

By Samindra Kunti

September 11 – Sahar Khodayari, an Iranian female football fan, who set herself on fire a week ago outside a courthouse, has died. She had been arrested trying to enter a football stadium.

Khodayari was detained for dressing as a man to sneak into a football stadium. In Iran, women have been banned from attending football matches since the early 80’s, but in recent years female fans have defied that ban by disguising as men to try and gain entry to stadiums.

Last week, Khodayari self-immolated in front of a court in Tehran after she found out that she could face a two-year sentence for attempting to enter the Azadi Stadium to watch her team play. In March, she had been arrested when she tried to enter Iran’s national stadium to watch Esteghlal FC face UAE’s Al Ain in an AFC Champions League match.

Khodayari was arrested for not adhering to Islamic hijab laws and covering her head. In Iran, there is no specific law that bars women from entering stadiums. A day later, her family posted bail, but since the incident happened on the weekend, she had to spend three more days in jail. Her family said the experience deteriorated Khodayari’s mental health as she had a history of battling bipolar disorder and had attempted suicide before.

She was rushed to hospital after setting herself on fire, but died of her wounds on Monday night. Khodayari’s story was followed by Iranians around the world who dubbed her the ‘blue girl’, the colours of her team.

“One day, one of the capital city’s largest stadiums will be called blue girl,” wrote journalist Mohammad Mosaed. ”A day when even if we are not around, our grandchildren will remember what a difficult path we went through to achieve our most basic human rights.”

Esteghlal and a number of other clubs sent their condolences to the Khodayari family. Iranian legend Ali Karimi has demanded the public and fans boycott all stadiums until the government lifts the ban on women.  Masoud Shojaei, the captain of the Iran men’s football team, said on Instagram that the ban is “rooted in outdated and cringe-worthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations.”

Earlier this month, Iranians started campaigning online for world sporting organisations to ban the country from competitions to stop what they see as state interference in sports.

In a statement world federation FIFA expressed its regret about Khodayari’s death. “We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it,” said FIFA in a statement.  “FIFA convey our condolences to the family and friends of Sahar and reiterate our 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.”

The Zurich body has however been slammed for being complacent. “Infantino has not applied FIFA human rights policy to stop these abuses. It was predictable decades of women protesting Iran’s stadium ban could end in catastrophe,” tweeted Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

FIFA set Iran a August 31 deadline to allow women into stadiums, but authorities ignored that ultimatum. Last year, FIFA president Gianni Infantino travelled to Tehran to attend the nations’s biggest derby between Esteqlal and Persepolis. He addressed the ban in talks with the Iranian Football Federation and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, according to local newspaper Shahrvand.

At the Equality and Inclusion conference at FIFA House a day later, Infantino reiterated his commitment to the issue. “I went yesterday to Tehran and I went to the President of Iran and I asked him: ‘Please, to consider to give access to woman in the stadium,’ explained Infantino. “He promised me that this will be made.”

Contact the writer of this story, Samindra Kunti, at moc.l1603377873labto1603377873ofdlr1603377873owedi1603377873sni@o1603377873fni1603377873



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