On Monday, September 2, a young woman set herself on fire in front of a courthouse in Tehran. After she was taken to Motahari Hospital, doctors announced that she had suffered 90 percent burns on her body. Her family, who wish to remain anonymous, have also asked for their daughter’s identity to be protected, and refer to her by the alias of “Sara,” although many people have begun to refer to her as the “Blue Girl” because of the color of the dress she was wearing when she set herself on fire.
Sara is a fan of Tehran’s Esteghlal Football Club (FC) and, in March 2019, police arrested her as she tried to enter the capital’s Azadi Stadium to watch a game between her team and the United Arab Emirates team Al Ain. Iranian women have been banned from sports stadiums for years, and they have tried everything to break the ban — from disguising themselves as men to public protests. They have paid the price, enduring beatings, arrests and jail terms.
In June 2019, FIFA’s President Gianni Infantino sent a letter to Iran’s football federation, announcing that it had until July 15, when the qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup started, “to implement FIFA’s new disciplinary codes and to provide for the presence of women in all Iranian sports stadiums.”
The Two-Faced Federation
Following the letter, Iran’s football federation announced that Azadi Stadium's doors will be open to women fans wanting to attend the national team’s match against Cambodia on October 10, but it stopped short of lifting the ban on them attending domestic matches. Iranian Pro League matches in August went ahead without any women spectators in attendance.
In the last year alone, security forces took action against women who wanted to enter stadiums five times. On August 12, Revolutionary Guards’ intelligence agents arrested at least six women following complaints from the head of Iran’s football federation, Mehdi Taj, and his request that the Guards stop women from entering the stadiums. One of those arrested was photojournalist Forough Alayi. The first Iranian woman to win first place in the WordPress Photo awards, Alayi has regularly tackled the subject of women being banned from entering stadiums and has documented women’s illegal presence at matches. This has won her praise, but she has also faced time in jail as punishment.
But why did Sara set herself on fire? In March, police blocked her as she tried to enter Azadi Stadium. When she resisted, they arrested her. After her arrest, Sara informed her family that she had to post a bail of 50 million tomans (over $4,300) in order to be released. The family managed to post bail after a day, despite it being a difficult amount to raise. Then authorities delayed Sara’s release by a further two days.
According to Sara’s sister, who, like the rest of the family has asked to remain anonymous, Sara suffers from bipolar disorder and has been undergoing specialist treatment for the last two years. “We have a complete set of documents about my sister’s illness and gave it to the court but, unfortunately, after my sister objected to the agents’ treatment of her and called them names, the court treated her as if she was a normal person [without mental health issues],” she said. She also said the judge had sent her sister to Varamin Prison, where the prison environment had aggravated her mental condition.
“When she went to the courthouse to get back her mobile phone, by chance she heard that she had been sentenced from between six months and two years in prison. With her aggravated and difficult mental conditions, she set herself on fire and is now in critical condition at the hospital.”
A judiciary official told Rokna News Agency that Sara has also been charged with “bad hijab,” “insulting police officers” and “acting against public modesty.” The report said Sara had arrived for the first session of her hearing “but the court’s president was off on that day because a relative of his had passed away, so another date was set ... As a protest against this action, the young woman set herself on fire outside the courthouse with gasoline that she had acquired beforehand.”
How will Posterity Judge us?
Sara’s shocking act of protest reverberated across social media. “Not too long ago, our predecessors’ forced removal of hijab [Reza Shah Pahlavi banned women from wearing the Islamic hijab in January 1936] or denial of the right of our daughters to go to school astounded us and we rebuked their abhorrent and medieval way of thinking,” Masoud Shojaei, the captain of Iran’s national football team, posted on Instagram. “In the same way, there is no doubt that posterity will not comprehend why a woman was arrested because she wanted to watch a football game and has set herself on fire.”
Another national team player and the captain of Esteghlal FC, Voria Ghafouri, wrote: “We rebuke our predecessors but pay no attention to the fact that women are not allowed into stadiums during our own lifetimes. This wrong is a good reason for future generations to reprimand us. It was really painful to hear the news that a young woman has attempted suicide after she got into trouble because she wanted to enter the stadium. I wish we could unite and give women their right to enter football stadiums in a respectable way.”
As well as attacking the ban on women in stadiums, Voria Ghafouri has also criticized the arrest of environmental activists, school fires in poverty-stricken areas of Iran, and the dismal condition of the economy. His last statements on the economy, as well as those of Ali Karimi, former Persepolis and Bayern Munich footballer, prompted the Supreme Leader to issue the following rebuke and warning: “Whatever you have, you have it thanks to the regime. Remember where your security comes from.”
“No Date on our Tombstones”
Mohammad Rashid Mazaheri, the goalkeeper for both Tractor Sazi FC and Team Melli, the national football team, had a similar view. “We must make sure that no date is carved on our tombstones,” he wrote on Instagram. “This way, posterity will not know that at this juncture in history, we were the inept ones.”
The news of Sara’s protest also led to prominent figures in Iranian cinema to share their views. “Forgive us that while you are in the hospital, we have a parade of women in the presence of FIFA officials,” wrote TV and movie actor Pouria Poursorkh on Instagram. “I swear that as long as I live I shall not step into the stadium that you [endured] burns for [because of] wanting to see it.”
Parvaneh Salahshouri, a reformist member of the parliament, said: “I keep asking myself: Couldn’t the footballers themselves resist and, for instance, say that they are not going to play? I have no idea whether this is possible or not but, in the end, people must take some action...At the very least, doesn’t this self-immolation send the message that ‘as a woman, I want something that the society refuses to grant me’? And it is not a strange demand. Women across the world enjoy this right.”
On the other hand, Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice President of Iran for Women and Family Affairs, had a lackluster response to the tragedy. “We are following her situation,” she said. “We hope she gets better.”
A “Security Case”?
Meanwhile, the journalist Elaheh Mohammadi reported: “The hospital guards forcefully ejected a reporter who wanted to meet Sara, and told the reporter that it was a ‘security case.’” No reporter, photographer or person who has not been approved by agents of the Intelligence Ministry has been allowed to meet Sara or her family.
“The motto of the National Olympic Committee is the freedom of humankind,” Dariush Mostafavi, a former national team footballer and the former chairman of the Iranian Football Federation, told the newspaper Iran. “If FIFA’s Infantino, his colleagues and officials of the Asian Football Confederation learn about this, what will they think about our country? How will they act toward the federation?”
But it does not appear as though FIFA plans to take any specific action. The history of relations between Gianni Infantino and Mehdi Taj, the president of the Iranian Football Federation, shows that FIFA is firmly behind the Iranian federation and only takes action if feels that the Iranian government is interfering in the management of the federation for political reasons.
Banned from Entering Stadium, Young Woman Sets Herself on Fire, September 4, 2019
Iran Attempts to Fool FIFA, August 27, 2019
Iran Jails Female Football Fans, August 16, 2019
Decoding Iran’s Politics: Football and State Interference, June 11, 2019
150 Female Fans Allowed into Azadi Stadium, October 19, 2018
Women Arrested as Authorities Step up CCTV Surveillance at Azadi Stadium, September 28, 2018
Women Enter Stadium as Fans Refuse to Go Home, June 20, 2018
Women in Stadiums: The Ban Continues — Except for a Select Few, February 18, 2018
The Poet, the Woman and the Football Fan, December 31, 2017
Ayatollah Gives Thumbs Down to Women in Stadiums, December 12, 2017
Iranian Women Banned from “Freedom” Stadium — Again, September 6, 2017