Sahar Khodayari: The Death of the “Blue Girl”

by | Sep 19, 2019

I recently re-watched Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s seminal ten-part series ‘The Vietnam War.’ And I watched episode two in horror at the 1963 footage of South Vietnamese Buddhist monks burning themselves to death (“self-immolating”) in desperate protest at the authoritarian Catholic-dominated government’s discrimination against and maltreatment of the nation’s Buddhist majority.

Thich Quang Doc was the first to self-immolate. And pictures of his death became an iconic image, possibly inappropriately so given its horrific nature (I first saw it on the cover of American rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine’s 1992 self-titled debut album). It was appalling, therefore, to read of Sahar Khodayari, a 30-year-old female Iranian football fan, who died on September 9th, having suffered 90% burns when she self-immolated outside a Teheran courtroom a week earlier, after receiving a six-months prison sentence for BEING a female Iranian football fan who went to an Iranian football match.

She was charged with “openly” committing a “sinful act” through “appearing in public without a hijab” and with “insulting officials.” But going to the match WAS her crime, as women have, effectively, been banned from Iranian football and other sporting stadiums since the 1979 revolution established the Islamic Republic of Iran, a year after Iran played in their first World Cup finals. Although a specific ban was never enshrined in law, Iran’s theocracy clamped down on female public activities of all kinds, major sports events included.

Female fans were let into Iranian capital Tehran’s 90,000-capacity Azadi Stadium (‘azadi’ meaning ‘freedom’ or ‘liberty’ in the Farsi language) to welcome home the Iranian national team (Team Melli) lauded as national heroes for beating the USA (“Great Satan,” and all that) 2-1 in the 1998 World Cup finals. And “a handful” of women were allowed to watch a 2005 World Cup qualifier there against Bahrain. But only “after security services had beaten several women attempting to enter the stadium, breaking the leg of one.”

Specific protest took organised shape with the 2005 founding of the “Open Stadiums” movement. The more general “white scarves” movement included women wearing scarves with the slogan “half of Azadi is my share.” And the issue was aired worldwide by Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film “Offside,” about a group of Iranian girls who tried to get into the Bahrain match dressed as boys.

In September 2017, women were allowed to buy tickets on-line for a World Cup qualifier against Syria. But this was blamed on a “computer glitch” and Iranian women with tickets were refused entry, while Syrian women with tickets were let in on production of their passport. But there was little real movement on the issue until March 2018. After 35 women were arrested for trying to watch Persepolis play Esteghlal in Tehran, which Fifa president Gianni Infantino attended, Fifa reportedly got Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to commit to “important progress” on opening football stadia to women.

The exclusion was part-lifted on October 16th for Iran’s 2-1 friendly win over Bolivia. And on November 10th “hundreds” of women attended the Asian Champions League final second leg between Persepolis and Japan’s Kashima Antlers. Persepolis captain, Hossein Mahini tweeted: “Hope one day half Azadi will be yours” in an echo of the White Scarves movement slogan above. However, Azadi Stadium was quickly an ironic concept again.

Infantino re-raised Fifa’s concerns after female fans were refused entry to Iran’s 5-0 friendly win over Syria at the Azadi on June 6th 2019. Two fans were ejected from the Canada/New Zealand Women’s World Cup finals match in Grenoble nine days later for wearing t-shirts bearing slogans supporting the cause. But within three days, Fifa’s declared the t-shirts’ message “social, not political” and promised to do their “best to ensure similar situations do not occur at future matches.”

And in a letter to Iran Football Federation (FFIRI) chief Medhi Taj, Infantino set Iran a July 15th deadline to say how they would “ensure that all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so will be allowed to buy tickets and to attend” any 2022 World Cup qualifiers in Iran, the first being Cambodia’s October 10th visit. And he added that despite “cultural sensitivities,” Fifa “owe (progress) to women all over the world” and have “a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the Fifa Statutes.”

However, the deadline passed without a peep. And, as the Guardian newspaper’s Suzanne Wrack reported last month, Iran’s sports minister, Masoud Soltanifar “pointed to the lack of a threat” in Infantino’s letter and said the Iranians were “preparing separate sections for women in grounds” in response to Infantino’s “request”. And Iranian authorities had re-clamped down on women at football long before Infantino’s attention was re-drawn to the issue.

Five days after the Champions League final, it was men-only again at the Azadi for Iran’s 1-0 friendly win over fellow human rights champs Thailand, whose government was then preparing to detain footballer Hakeem Al-Araibi for no good reason. And on March 12th, Khodayari was arrested and detained for two days before being released on bail, for trying to attend an Asian Champions League match between her team, Esteghlal, and Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates at the Azadi.

There were conflicting reports as to why computer science graduate Khodayari became widely known as “blue girl.”  It was either because Esteghlal wear blue shirts or because she wore a blue hairpiece when she tried to get into the Al-Ain game disguised as a man. In this, she was following the awe-inspiring example  of the “Bearded Girls” or “Liberty Girls,” themselves imitating the girls in “Offside” (above).

This protest made headlines on April 27th 2018, when “several” Iranian women attended an Iranian Pro League game between their team, Persepolis, and Sepidrood at the Azadi and posted pictures of themselves inside the stadium, disguised as bearded men, on social media. The BBC reported that “one of the women” had “pulled off the trick” three times. “I Google for different make-up [tutorials] and learn new ways and apply them to go to the stadium,” she said. Handy preparation, as the pictures had probably blown their previous disguises.

Protestors’ difficulties were highlighted last April by female photographer Forough Alaei in an amazing piece in the Guardian’s Art and Design section headlined “Undercover: female football fans in Iran.” Alaei won a World Press Photo award in the sports category for her “Crying for Freedom,” photo-series, so-called because of the women “crying from happiness” when they were allowed into the Azari/Freedom stadium to watch Iran at the 2018 World Cup on the big screens.

“Crying for Freedom” also featured “Zeinab, one of the first women to disguise herself as a man to watch matches.”  Zeinab, Alaei reported, travelled “about 15 hours… by train to watch Persepolis. Alaei also “had to pass myself off as a boy” to accompany her into the Azadi. Despite her disguise, she used her iPhone to take the award-winning shots because “as a female photographer, I’m not permitted to take my camera to the stadium.” And she recounted the onerous requirements of effective disguise (“we even had to bandage our breasts to look flat as boys”).

“I had not even thought of taking such risk before,” Alaei admitted. “But after I saw their efforts I felt that I had to promote their voices.” And the risk was real. Alaei was one of six people arrested for their stadium-entering activities (she’d told the Guardian that she “went to a domestic match between Persepolis and Pars Jonoubi Jam in December 2018” disguised “as a boy”). Four, including Alaei were released on bail after five days in prison.

Khodayari’s death, three weeks later, sparked widespread condemnation from football and beyond. Ali Karimi, capped 127 times by Iran between 1998 and 2012 and a vocal opponent of the ban, called for a boycott of all Iranian sports stadiums. Current Team Melli” captain, Masoud Shojaei (whose sister Maryam watched Iran worldwide for years, reportedly unbeknownst to him) called the ban “the rotten and disgusting thinking of the past.”

Sweden’s women’s team captain Kosovare Asilani said: “It’s time to act and not be silent. We need to help the women of Iran fight against gender apartheid.” But the most alarming response from within football was the broken English tweet by Esteghlal, referencing her jail term “for going to the stadium to support her Esteghlal” and adding, despairingly, that “she supported us despite the politics made it illegal for her. But what can we do to support her? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. We are cowards.”

Amnesty International’s Middle East Research and Advocacy Director Philip Luther called Iran “the only country in the world that stops and punishes women seeking to enter football stadiums.” (Even Saudi Arabia let women into a domestic match in Jeddah in June 2018) “This discriminatory ban must end immediately and the international community, including Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), must take urgent action to end the ban and ensure that women are allowed access to all sports stadiums without discrimination or risk of prosecution or punishment.”

Women’s rights advocate Parvaneh Salahshuri tweeted: “We are all in a prison and responsible for Sahar’s self-immolation.” Sadra Mohaqeq, of the Shargh (“East”) ‘reformist’ newspaper tweeted: “She was an innocent girl…she just wanted to watch a match of her favourite club.” US-based Iranian journalist Kambiz Hosseini wished she “could do something other than tweeting,” And leading Iranian actress Mahnaz Afshar said the authorities were “accountable to your conscience now Sahar is dead.”

There were crudely transparent efforts to distance Khodayari’s death from the protests. Pro-establishment types claimed that she had attempted suicide at university. Iranian state media reported her sister referencing Khodayari’s treatment for bipolar disorder. Meanwhile, the AFC, whose president is the repugnant Shaikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa and under whose auspices the match Khodayari was arrested at was played, said: “………” Because of course they did.

Global condemnation of football’s authorities has conflated Fifa and the AFC, which is slightly unfair on Fifa. “Fifa Media” tweeted Fifa’s “condolences to the family and friends of Sahar” and their “deep regret” at the “tragedy.” But Infantino’s actions have been ineffective. And Fifa’s current reluctance concerning their “landmark” Human Rights policy wasn’t evident when they trumpeted its introduction in June 2017.

Maryam Shojaei was among the signatories on a complaint about the ban to Fifa’s Ethics Committee this April, leading to Infantino’s letter to Taj. But Shojaei had been urging Fifa to “apply pressure and, if necessary, threaten sanctions” against the FFIRI since March 2018. She told Suzanne Wrack that she “went to Fifa in November with a petition of 240,000 signatures and I gave that petition to Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura.” But “no-one took this seriously,” despite Samoura previously telling Open Stadiums that the issue was “very high on Fifa’s human rights agenda.”

Fifa has indeed been cautious in the face of “cultural” (i.e. religious) “sensitivities.” Fifa Media merely tweeted “calls” on Iran “to ensure freedom and safety of any women engaged in legitimate fight to end the stadium ban” rather than ACTUALLY end it. Yet the supposed fundamentality of such “sensitivities” varied for games with Bolivia (women admitted) and Thailand (men-only).

These are only part-explained by the divisions between Iranian sporting and other institutions. In 2006, even nutjob ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to get “influential clerics” to reconsider the ban. But theocratic judiciaries were/are having none of it. And three days after the Bolivia friendly, Iran’s chief prosecutor Mohammed Jahar Montazeri declared that  “when a woman goes to the stadium and sees half-naked men in sports clothing, sin is committed,” a curious definition of half-naked, aside from anything else.

“Revolutionary Guards Leader Abdullah Hajj’s” called for women to be denied entry by stadium “guards” because “women’s presence in stadiums is dangerous.” He saw slippery slopes: “We first let women watch the World Cup on television, then we let them enter the stadiums to watch football games. Next, women will want to mix with men and watch the games together.” And then where would we be.

The FFIRI’s intriguingly-entitled ‘Cultural Advisor,’ Gholam Hussein Zanam Abadi, explained their dilemma: “Fifa requested that women be allowed in the stadiums. We could not risk being barred from the competition because of the ban.” And last month, the FFRI’s Professional Football Licensing Appeals Committee chief, Dariush Mostafavi, said that Fifa had set an August 30 deadline “to sort out the presence of women in stadiums.”

Yet that Fifa deadline also entered history unheeded. And Montazeri said last month that “Fifa has no sympathy for Iranian women, and its insistence on allowing them to enter arenas and watch male footballers is a reflection of the enemy’s infiltration in Iran.” He also, erroneously, claimed that it was “not the concern of Fifa whether women are among the football fans in the stadiums or not.” So he’s not mellowed with age.

Nor has Iran’s religious establishment. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi  ‘explained’ recently why stadiums were “unsuitable” for women. “The youth’s mingling and freedom is the source of many moral and social problems. In some sports, what men wear is not proper for women [to watch]. Therefore, they need to refrain from attending such events. Especially,” he added, missing the entire point of football fandom, “since they can watch them on TV, so their physical presence will be unnecessary.”

Last week, presidential chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi claimed not to “see a problem with women attending if the atmosphere in stadiums is convenient but with so much foul language among fans and violence, this is not advisable.” Well…f**k that… Nevertheless, “cultural sensitivities” do not seem so fundamental to non-religious authorities when the world is watching and international football expulsion is threatened. And while Fifa have been a dead weight on the issue, until publicly pushed, these pushes have been growing in frequency, even as I researched this piece.

Last Friday, renowned Sports Illustrated journalist Grant Wohl’s ‘Parting Shot’ on his ‘Planet Futbol’ podcast was a call to Fifa to “enforce” its anti-discrimination rules on Iran and for the Fifa delegation reportedly due to visit Iran soon “to say unequivocally ‘you will be banned from qualification for World Cup 2022 in Qatar and any further benefits Fifa could give you if you do not do what’s right and by October 1st remove every single barrier to women attending games.’” And, as I proof-read this, Guardian columnist Marina Hyde expansively condemned Fifa’s “shamelessness,” and “cowardice,” concluding that “normal disservice has since been resumed.”

So, despite the “bearded girls’” breathtaking commitment to their cause, and years of ferocious campaigning by countless others, Khodayari’s death may prove the catalyst for change in Iran. It is horrific that such a horrific action was required on an issue which should not BE an issue in modern football. As Suzanne Wrack wrote last month: “for the majority of women this is not a consciously political battle.” And, as Maryam Shojaei said: “They don’t want to make a statement. They just want to go and watch football.”