Imagine being sentenced for six months in jail for trying to attend the football match of your favorite team. Imagine becoming so desperate and hopeless, that you decide to set yourself on fire.
Imagine you die from your injuries.
On Sunday, September 1st, outside of an Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran, Iran, Sahar Khodoyari, 29, a.k.a. The Blue Girl, has done all of the above and set herself on fire. Sahar, a fan of Esteghlal Tehran, has protested after she was charged for six months in jail. Her crime was trying to enter the Azadi Stadium for an Asian Champions League match between Esteghlal Tehran and Al-Ain, back in March.
Now, the world became familiar with Khodoyari's story after she died from her wounds. According to reports, 90% of her body was covered with level 3 burns as a result of the self-immolation.
This horrific story caused reactions from many footballing figures, clubs and organisations. Barcelona, Chelsea and AS Roma all published their condolences, as well as Paul Pogba and other notable footballers. Iranian national team captain, Masoud Shojaei, has expressed his and his teammates' unrest of the situation, after Team Melli's victory against Hong Kong: "Condolences, girls of Iran. Today, Team Melli lost because Sahar wasn't with us", he told the media with a signed face.
Women in Iranian Football
The subject of women presence in Iranian male football is for years one of the most discussed among football fans in Iran, Asia and at specific points also worldwide. Iran is one of the few countries in the world that does not allow women to watch men's football matches from the stadium.
Besides football, Iranian female fans can attend men’s basketball, volleyball, judo and other sport events. It is football, and especially the Azadi Stadium, which are being treated as a stronghold of the IRGC - the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps - that imposes this ban on women in the country. In other stadiums across the country, and mainly in lower league football, one can witness limited female presence in the stand.
It seems that this clash of civilizations is in the center of the deep cultural climax in Iran, with double manners and fear filling in the discussion. While the women futsal team, "The Ninjas", are producing hypnotic displays of a unique tiki-taka style, the regime embraces it. When Katayoun Khosrowyar, who was interviewed on BabaGol before, the ex-coach of Iran youth and U19 national teams, developed the female game - Iran enjoyed her efforts. The investment and recognition women receive in Iranian football is poor and on the verge of a complete neglection.
In the 2018 World Cup, Iran was playing well. Team Melli was pushing Spain and Portugal to the wall and almost caused a massive outburst. At the time, they enjoyed the support from nearly 60 thousand fans in the stands. Many of them were women.
In the Asian Cup in the UAE earlier this year, it was the same case. Women were a very dominant voice in the Iranian massive supporting group. There, “Open Stadiums”, one of the leading voices in the fight of the lifting the ban on Iranian women from the country's stadiums.
Iranian women's passion for football is one of the purest in the world. And yet - the IRGC, and the conservative powers in the country is keeping to ban them from taking full part.
During the last Asian Champions League final, after intervention and pressure, 1,000 women were allowed to a separate section in the Azadi Stadium to support local Persepolis against Japanese Kashima Antlers. Back then, it looked like the impact of the movement of letting Iranian in the stadiums, is starting to spread. But it wasn't. Now, the world faces the situation of a young woman who committed suicide after being left out, caught, arrested and sent to jail, only for trying and enter a football stadium.
FIFA has reportedly sent an investigative delegation to Iran to check the case. "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", was the official statement.
This case is an urgent one. Iranian football shouldn't continue being played unless a valid, trustworthy and right solution to this situation and now.
One must ask - does the Iranian regime want to make the local women suffer? Is FIFA willing to continue and act like everything is normal despite a horror incident that is showing that everything is certainly not?
Some would say that it is a clash of cultures. The western liberal thought on one side, while the traditional Islamic thought on the other. Others, mainly from a conservative mindset, will see it as part of the ongoing tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
But the truth is - it's none of it. It's a fundamental right of every human being who loves football to attend the stadium. All of these claims don't matter anymore.
When a woman sets herself on fire to death because of the punishment she got for attending a football game, both agendas are losing.
Let Iranian women in the stadiums, or we will witness more victims, more injustice and more suffering.