Tehran, Iran: March 2019. A woman is arrested while trying to gain entry to the Azadi Stadium to watch a game of football after her gender is revealed to stadium security guards.
Women have been banned from attending football and other stadiums in Iran as a result of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
For disguising herself as a man, Sahar Khodayari faced charges of ‘openly committing a sinful act by… appearing in public without a hijab’ and ‘insulting officials’, spending three nights in prison before being released on bail.
‘Azadi’ may Hindi for freedom, but for Khodayari, this gross violation of her human rights sparked a chain of events that ultimately led to her death.
Last week, Khodayari died from burns to 90 percent of her body.
She set herself alight following a court appearance in which she learned she could face at least 6 months in jail for taking the chance to watch her favourite football team compete.
While women are not legally banned from entering stadiums, it is a cultural precedent that has been ‘ruthlessly enforced’ since 1981.
Khodayari’s arrest, however, was related to her disguising herself as a man in a country where women are legally required to wear headscarves.
Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, says Khodayari’s case was a tragic example of the way in which Iran’s legal system is set up to openly target women:
“Her only ‘crime’ was being a woman in a country where women face discrimination that is entrenched in law and plays out in the most horrific ways imaginable in every area of their lives, even sports.”
“To our knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world that stops and punishes women seeking to enter football stadiums,” says Luther.
Khodayari has been remembered as #Bluegirl on social media in honour of her team’s colour.
Supporters are devastated at her death, blaming FIFA, the world football governing body, for their inaction against Iran for breaking its discrimination statutes despite being punishable by expulsion.
FIFA had already set Iran a deadline of August 31 to allow women to enter stadiums prior to Khodayari’s death.
And, in response to the news of her passing, FIFA released a hollow statement of condolence, minimising its own inaction on sanctioning Iran by firmly placing blame on the nation for the stadium bans:
“We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it. 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.”
Khodayari’s final act, however, seemed to go beyond her love of football; her self-immolation was an act of defiance against the oppressive norms and laws that restrict women’s freedom in Iran.
In an article published by The New York Times, Fareed Mousavi, a member of Iran’s Parliament youth committee, says bans like the one on women entering stadiums has more significant cultural implications than some may realise:
“Some issues can be resolved simply but we turn them into deep social scars for which we have no answer to history. We need to rectify these unjust discriminations before it’s too late.”
Now there are reports that a judge has issued an arrest warrant for Saba Kamali, a famous Iranian actress, for speaking out in support of Khodayari on social media.
In an Instagram post, Kamali claimed Khodayari ‘suffered more ruthless treatment than the third Shiite Imam’, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson and a ‘divinely appointed’ figure of significance to Shiite Muslims who was brutally martyred in the 7th Century.
In Iran, women’s lives are restricted in many aspects, including where they can travel and what they wear.
For example, married women require permission from their husbands to leave the country.
In 2015, Niloufar Ardalan, captain of the national women’s futsal team, was unable to compete in the Asian Championships when her husband refused to permit her to renew her expired passport.
“I will miss the tournament because my husband is opposed to me travelling abroad,” Ardalan said of the incident.
So-called ‘morality police’ enforce a conservative dress code and have the power to ‘arrest and detain’ people who do not conform.
Earlier this year, the Iranian government introduced 2,000 additional morality police units in response to an ‘increasing defiance’ by women to wear the hijab.
Several women who took part in a hijab protest in December 2017 and January 2018 have been sentenced to prison.
A 2017 article published by The Independent reports that a 14-year old girl and her friends were physically assaulted by morality police for wearing ripped jeans.