Sahar Khodayari, a 30-year-old Iranian woman, has died after she self-immolated outside of a courtroom where she was being tried for attempting to enter a soccer match disguised as a man. Khodayari was arrested in March as she tried to attend a match featuring her favorite team, Esteghlal. She was facing up to six months in prison.
Since 1981, women have not allowed to attend soccer matches in Iran, though that standard has eased a bit due to international pressure from FIFA and other organizations. Women will be allowed to watch the next Iranian national team match in the stadium, but the ban remains in place for club matches, like the one that Khodayari snuck into in March. Though the ban is not an official law, it is strictly enforced by the country’s “morality police,” and upheld through charges of “improperly wearing hijab,” a charge levied upon Khodayari when she was arrested. She was a “Blue Girl,” the name given to fans of the blue-clad Esteghlal club.
Khodayari’s arrest and death have brought the spotlight back onto the country’s ban, one that led to four arrests in August (the four women were later released on bail). A photo circulated showing Khodayari in the hospital after her burns.
Fair warning: it is a distressing image.
There are conflicting reports of when Khodayari actually died. Iranian media reporting she died on Monday, while “sources inside Iran” told news outlet IranWire that she had actually died on September 6.
Since Khodayari’s death, prominent voices both in Iran and in world soccer have expressed their disdain for the policy that bans women from stadiums. Iranian national team captain Masoud Shojaei and his teammate Vorya Ghafouri have lent their voices to the cause, with Shojaei calling the ban a result of “the rotten and disgusting thinking of the past,” per Radio Farda. Esteghlal player Farshid Bagheri posted a message on his Instagram, calling the ban an insult to Iran’s intelligence and culture.
Swedish internationals Kosovare Asllani and Magdalena Eriksson called for FIFA to intervene further in Iran and fight what Asllani called “gender apartheid” in the country:
FIFA president Gianni Infantino had previously put pressure on Iran to allow women to attend matches, saying that the organization has “a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the FIFA Statutes.” The letter, sent to Iranian soccer federation president Mehdi Taj in June, called for a plan of action put in place by July 15 to allow women, both Iranian and foreign, to attend stadiums. That deadline was a month before the four August arrests and nearly two months before Khodayari’s death (albeit months after her arrest).
FIFA provided a statement to Iranian press outlet Manoto News, reiterating its drive to end the ban, as well as expressing sympathies for the victim’s family:
That the ban seems to remain in place shows that FIFA’s effort hasn’t worked, and yet the organization still provides membership and support to Iran.