Last week, Iranian football made global headlines when Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl,” died. The 29-year-old fan of Tehranian club Esteghlal appeared in court on September 2nd and told she could face up to six months in prison.
Her crime? Attending a soccer match.
In March, Khodayari was arrested when she attempted to enter Tehran’s Azadi stadium to watch Esteghlal, but was caught by officials. In Iran, women are banned from attending men’s soccer matches. After Khodayari appeared in court and was told of her possible sentence, she set herself on fire outside of the courthouse. She died from her injuries last week.
Iran’s policy and the activism challenging it
Women have been banned from attending soccer matches in Iran since the country became an Islamic Republic following the 1979 revolution. The message from Iran’s government is that soccer matches are not pure spaces and women should not be exposed to those environments.
Activists fighting against this ban came to global attention during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, although their battle has been going on much longer than that. Iran qualified for the 2018 tournament and women from Iran traveled to the games in Russia. Their mere presence was a statement, but the women also spoke to media and flew banners highlighting their plight.
Women are regularly detained for attempting to go to matches in Iran. In fact, when FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended the Tehran Derby at Azadi Stadium, 35 women and girls were detained for attempting to enter the stadium. These women have protested inside and outside of prisons, desperately trying to make their voices heard. And in 2018, many of those voices were heard all over the world.
Solidarity for Sahar
Women’s and men’s soccer teams within Iran and around the world have expressed their sorrow over Khodayari’s death and their solidarity with Iranian women. Esteghlal and their main rivals, Persepolis, held a minute’s silence following Iran’s death. Esteghlal issued a statement, which read in part, “She supported us despite the politics made it illegal for her, but what can we do to support her? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We are cowards.”
The sentiment was echoed by the Iran football captain, Masoud Shojaei, who said, “Shame on me for not having been able to do anything and shame on those who took away the most obvious right from Sahar and all Sahars.”
It is likely that Masoud and the Tehranian clubs took great personal risk to make these statements.
Scrolling through social media feeds for OpenStadiums, the campaign of Iranian women fighting for their right to attend matches, you can see some of the support pouring out from women’s teams. Hedvig Lindhal, Hope Solo, and others reposted a petition intended to put pressure on Iran. Clubs from Norway, Italy, and elsewhere wore blue armbands or held up blue pieces of paper.
For many in the women’s soccer world, this tragedy was a reminder of how strong misogyny still is and how much there still is to fight for.
FIFA’s inaction is wrong. And it’s costing lives.
In the wake of Khodayari’s death, FIFA has faced a lot of criticism. This criticism is, in my opinion, completely warranted.
FIFA has been working with Iran to try to get women into stadiums. But Khodayari’s death makes it clear that FIFA isn’t doing enough. FIFA laws state that “Discrimination of any kind… is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” The tools are there for them to use more than words to put pressure on Iran, but instead, they have allowed the country to slowly and vaguely move towards progress.
And why didn’t FIFA do more to get women who had been arrested out of prison? Masoud Shojaei’s sister, Maryam, wrote eight letters to FIFA since Khodayari was charged, begging them to lift the ban. When she didn’t get a response, she presented a 200,000-signature petition to FIFA at their headquarters. But Maryam says no one took her seriously.
FIFA’s course of action should be clear. If Iran does not allow women to attend their matches, FIFA should bar them from participating in the 2022 World Cup qualifications and prohibit them from receiving other benefits that come from FIFA membership.
Iran appears to be moving towards allowing women in stadiums as soon as the first qualifiers in October. But they have promised this before. How many other women must die before FIFA will take a stand?
The world is watching.
If you want to support the women of Iran, you can follow the OpenStadiums movement on Twitter at the handle @OpenStadiums.