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The World Reacts to the Tragic Death of the “Blue Girl”

September 26, 2019
Vahid Yucesoy
6 min read
For years, women have attempted to enter stadiums by disguising themselves as men
For years, women have attempted to enter stadiums by disguising themselves as men
Iranians outside the country have drawn attention to the discrimination female football fans face in Iran
Iranians outside the country have drawn attention to the discrimination female football fans face in Iran
FIFA president Gianni Infantino introduced a statement by the governing body on September 19. It said: "Our position is clear and firm. Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran”
FIFA president Gianni Infantino introduced a statement by the governing body on September 19. It said: "Our position is clear and firm. Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran”

In the early days of September, Iran was shocked by the death of a 30-year-old woman, Sahar Khodayari, who set herself on fire outside a courtroom. She had been due to face trial after she attempted to enter a football stadium disguised as a man to support her favorite team, Esteghlal, earlier in 2019. Also dubbed the #BlueGirl on social media, the news of Khodayari’s tragic death reverberated across the globe, drawing harsh criticism from all corners of the world. Crucially, it also put the spotlight on the Islamic Republic’s ban on women entering stadiums — the only country in the world where such a ban has been in effect.


A Death that Shook the International Community

Iran’s persistence in retaining the stadium ban for women has previously been condemned by notable international organizations including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, and Amnesty International. However, despite drawing widespread condemnations, the adverse consequences of the ban had failed to garner the attention of the international community — until the death of Sahar Khodayari.

Khodayari’s death has also shocked the sporting world, so much that many international celebrities and clubs weighed in to condemn it and the structural conditions that paved the way for the tragedy. On Twitter, Gary Lineker, a world-renowned English former professional footballer and current sports broadcaster, wrote: “How awfully sad. And how awful that a woman can’t enter a football stadium.” AS Roma Football Club echoed this indignation on Twitter: “#ASRoma is yellow & red but today our heart bleeds blue for Sahar Khodayari. The beautiful game is meant to unite us, not divide us – that’s why we set up @ASRoma_Persian last year. Now it’s time for everyone in Iran to be allowed to enjoy football matches together. RIP #BlueGirl.” Chelsea Football Club, with more than 13 million followers on Twitter, also spoke out: “We were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Sahar Khodayari. Football is a sport for all and we believe stadiums must be open to all.” Paul Gobda, the famous French professional footballer who plays for Premier League club Manchester United and the French national team, wrote: “Strength and prayers to family and friends of #bluegirl #SaharKhodayari.” Magdalena Eriksson, who plays defense for Chelsea Women, wrote: “What a horrible tragedy @FIFA.com and any other organization that’s in a position of privilege and power, you need to act to make this stop! RIP #SaharKhodayari,” and posted photographs of herself wearing a T-shirt that said: “I’m playing for my girls in Iran.”

In Afghanistan, during an Afghan Premier League football match in Kabul, many women carried placards with messages of solidarity for the Blue Girl. In Turkey, female football teams Akdeniz Nurçelikspor and Ozanlar Gücüspor held a tournament in Küçükçekmece, a borough of Istanbul, to commemorate women “who are being ignored,” and especially for Sahar Khodayari.

The US Department of State also reacted, saying, “Death of blue girl, Sahar Khodayari, is another proof for the fact that the Iranian people are the greatest victims of the Islamic regime.”


International Pressure to Act

Magdalena Eriksson’s point about international organizations “in a position of privilege” taking action put the onus on football organizations, especially FIFA and organizations representing individual countries. IranWire contacted FIFA and a slew of individual country organizations, including the Belgian, Austrian, Italian, Romanian, German, New Zealand, French, Australian, Spanish, Swedish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swiss football federations, the English Football Association, and the Canadian and United States soccer federations. Out of all these individual country federations, only the Australian Football Federation responded: “Thank you for you[r] email. [We] write to let you know that Football Federation Australia will not be making any comment on this matter.”

Most importantly, FIFA’s reaction has been the subject of much scrutiny. It must be remembered that FIFA, football’s international governing body, has specific provisions in its statutes regarding gender equality. It has stated: “Discrimination of any kind ... is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.” Despite the fact that Iran had time and again resorted to discrimination by reneging on its obligations, FIFA still allowed matches to go ahead in Iran. FIFA’s complicity was also raised by Maryam Shojaei, a member of the women's advocacy group @OpenStadiums, which lobbies against Iran's long-time ban on females attending sporting events at stadiums in the country. Maryam’s brother, Masoud Shojaei, is the captain of Iran's national football team. In a passionate plea during an interview with CNN, Maryam Shojaei said “FIFA is the one to blame” for Sahar Khodayari’s death, accusing the organization of not doing enough to counter the gender discrimination in stadiums in Iran and appealing to the international community not to ignore the discriminatory practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Immediately after Khodayari’s death, IranWire contacted FIFA and asked the organization for its response. FIFA responded by saying: “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.”

FIFA also posted a statement on Twitter: “Today we learnt of some very sad news from Iran, and deeply regret this tragedy. FIFA conveys its condolences to the family and friends of Sahar. FIFA reiterates 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.”


Has International Pressure Worked?

FIFA has been under immense pressure since the incident. In the face of mounting criticism, the governing body released the following statement: “FIFA refutes any suggestion it has been inactive in the fight for these women's rights in Iran. We are working with the Iranian Football Association in the hope and expectation that women will be in attendance at future games beginning with the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in October.”

On September 19, FIFA published another statement to assure the public of the concrete steps it was taking. The statement, announced by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, said: “I am hopeful that the Iranian Federation and the Iranian authorities were receptive to our repeated calls to address this unacceptable situation. I contacted them several times in the recent past and so has the FIFA administration. We have a delegation of FIFA members in Iran at the moment and I am looking forward to hearing good news from them. Our position is clear and firm. Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran.”

By September 23, its stance became more categoric. Infantino said: FIFA “cannot wait anymore” for women to be allowed into Iranian stadiums to watch men’s matches and that Infantino had been “assured” the authorities will allow women in its next international match.

Meanwhile, UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, also sent a stern warning to Iranian officials, stating that it would tell member clubs and national teams not to play games in countries where women do not have full access to stadiums. This concerted, worldwide action to apply pressure on Iranian authorities to let women in the country’s stadiums is unprecedented. The announcer for Iran’s public address system at Azadi Stadium said on Sunday, September 22 that women would be allowed to attend the upcoming football matches “either at the World Cup qualifier competitions or at the local league games.”

It remains to be seen to what extent the Iranian authorities will keep their promises, and for how long. However, it is indubitable that they have been receptive to international pressure, and that it is this pressure that has spurred them to act.

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