Iran is known to have very strict gender laws, including when it comes to sports. Women have to cover their heads with a ‘rusari’ and wear a ‘manteau’ or ‘chador’, resembling a long coat. Some universities don’t let women study ‘manly’ subjects such as engineering, and women often need permission from their fathers/husbands to travel or work.
Women participating in sports in Iran is especially looked down on. A few weeks ago, a female football star was banned from travelling to the Asian cup due to not having her husband’s permission. Other than this, women are not allowed to attend and watch football matches, which is a rule Iranian men and women are now trying to change.
Sahar Khodayari, aged 29, died on the 9th of September this year after committing suicide. She lit herself on fire in front of a court in Tehran and was rushed to hospital with severe burns on 90% of her body. The hospital staff were not able to save her. Sahar was from then on known as the ‘Blue Girl’; given this title due to her favourite football team’s colour. She attempted to enter Azadi Stadium to watch Esteghlal FC vs UAE’s AL Ai in the AFC Champions League match where she was discovered and arrested for not submitting to Iran’s hijab laws. Yet, it has been accused that she was arrested for entering the stadium itself: for which there are no formal laws against her being allowed to do so.
Her family paid bail, but she was still forced to stay in jail for three days due to it being the weekend. The family then waited six months for her court case before it was postponed due to the judge having a family emergency. This traumatic experience took a toll on her mental health as she previously suffered from bipolar disorder and suicidal thoughts. It was after she returned to court to get her phone where she overheard that if convicted, she would likely be imprisoned for 6 months to two years. She killed herself later that day.
Since this act, people have been expressing their disbelief and anger on the arrest. The trend #BlueGirl started rising on social media in support of Sahar and her family. In support of all Iranian women. Football fans and clubs sent their condolences to her family, including Esteghlal, her team, and AS Roma: who posted their logo in blue and yellow instead of red and yellow on Twitter. Iranian football player Ali Karimi demanded the public to boycott all stadiums until women would be allowed to enter. Farhad Majidi, head coach of the Iranian under 23 team, published his support for “Dear Sahar, Azadi’s stands will forever yearn to see you” with a picture of an empty Azadi stadium.
Sahar’s death put pressure on FIFA to act as well. FIFA has previously set a deadline, allowing women to enter their stadiums until 31 of August, although the government did not confirm it. Many are calling for FIFA to take action to encourage the Iranian government to let more than a handful of women enter the stadiums.
FIFA responded to the controversy, “We are aware of the tragedy and deeply regret it” as well as calling on the “Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any women” trying to fight this ban. However, no formal action has been taken yet.
“Shame on you FIFA. you should have banned Iran’s football federation because of gender segregation before Sahar tried to enter a stadium […]” – Faranak Hariri
Maryam Shojaei explained during a CNN interview “I think FIFA is the one to blame and if they enforced their human rights and gender discrimination rules, Sahar would have been alive today”.
Iran’s oppression of women is only causing more and more pain. The world is demanding change from the Iranian government to remove this ban and allow women to participate in sports. To be given the freedom for something as simple as supporting their football team. As Shojaei said, “We need to take action immediately.”