Will Sahar Khodayari’s death be in vain or an inspiration?

Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old woman, set herself on fire and died after she faced prison for trying to enter a football match disguised as a man in Iran.

Women have been banned from entering football stadiums when men are playing in Iran since just after the Iranian Revolution (also known as the Islamic Revolution) when the last monarch of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was overthrown in 1979 and Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini (Ayatollah Khomeini), founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the leader of the Iranian Revolution, assumed power.

The last time women were allowed into a male football match was 5 October 1981. Iran is the only country in the world that bans women from stadiums.

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Sahar Khodayari, who was known as the “blue girl” after the colours of Esteghlal FC, the club she supported in Tehran, tried to enter Azadi Stadium, the national stadium in Tehran, for an AFC Champions League match between Esteghlal and Al-Ain FC in March this year. She was disguised as a man but was arrested by security guards. She spent three nights in jail before being released on bail.

Amnesty International state that Sahar Khodayari was charged with “openly committing a sinful act by …. appearing in public without a hijab” and “insulting officials”. Six month later she was told to attend the Revolutionary Court in Tehran on 2 September and explain her actions. Although no judge was present, she was reportedly told she would faced six months jail. She went outside and poured petrol over herself, set herself on fire and died a week later due to her injuries.

Sahar Khodayari

FIFA’s President, Gianni Infantino, gave the Iranian government a deadline of 15 July 2018 to lay out what steps were being taken to ensure women could attend qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup that will be held in the country.

“Whilst we are aware of the challenges and cultural sensitivities, we simply have to continue making progress here, not only because we owe it to women all over the world, but also because we have a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the FIFA Statutes,” Infantino wrote in a letter, obtained by the New York-based Centre for Human Rights in Iran.

Iran play their first FIFA World Cup qualifier against Cambodia in Tehran on Thursday (9.30pm HKT) and FIFA state it has been “assured” that women will be able to attend. Iranian authorities state that more than 3,500 tickets have been sold to women but Amnesty International is unimpressed.

“Iran’s decision to allow a token number of women into the stadium for tomorrow’s football match is a cynical publicity stunt by the authorities intended to whitewash their image following the global outcry over Sahar Khodayari’s tragic death,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director at Amnesty International.

“Anything short of a full reversal of the ban on women accessing all football stadiums is an insult to Sahar Khodayai’s memory and an affront to the rights of all the women of Iran who have been courageously campaigning for the ban to be lifted.

“Instead of taking half-hearted steps to address their discriminatory treatment of women who want to watch football, the Iranian authorities should lift all restrictions on women attending football matches, including domestic league games, across the country. The international community, including world football’s governing body, FIFA, must also ensure that woman are permitted to attend all matches.

“FIFA has a responsibility to respect human rights throughout its operations and the power under its statutes to take definitive and urgent action to address a situation which it has allowed to continue for far too long.”

FIFA’s head of education and social responsibility Joyce Cook told BBC Sport: “It’s not just about one match. We’re not going to turn our eyes away from this.

“We’re totally focused on making sure women can attend this match on 10 October and working just as pragmatically to ensure women also can attend local matches in league football – but it’s about what follows as well.

“FIFA has a very firm stand – fans are equally entitled to attend matches.

“At times there are these lines in the sand moments, to set a new era. We expect that the access for women into matches is also going to happen in the leagues as well. This is a moment for real change.

“We are firm and committed that all fans have an equal right, including women, to attend matches.”

Campaigner Maryam Shojaei, who is the sister of the men’s Iran national team captain Masoud Shojaei, said that FIFA could have helped save the life of Khodayari had it taken firmer action sooner.

Shojaei said the 40-year ban was “embarrassing” because it was “not even a true reflection of our society”.

Will Sahar Khodayari’s death be in vain or inspire generational change?

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