Iran’s #BlueGirl and the shaming of football

Sahar Khodayari RIP: Women in Iran have been barred from men’s sporting events since 1981. © Getty

Does world football have any purpose beyond profit? This is the question raised by the abject failure of the highest-governing body of the sport, FIFA, after the death of Sahar Khodayari.

Last spring, a young woman named Sahar Khodayari went to see her favourite Iranian soccer team, Esteghlal, play at Azadi Stadium in Tehran.

“Azadi” means “freedom” in Persian, but Khodayari wasn’t free to enter the stadium that day because Iranian women are barred from attending soccer matches. So, she dressed as a man, wearing Esteghlal’s blue team colour.

Security guards stopped her, and she confessed that she was a woman. Khodayari was arrested and held in jail for three days, then released pending a court hearing.

Khodayari appeared for her court date and learned that the case had been postponed but, apparently, also found out that she might face a jail term of anywhere from six months to two years.

Fearing that prospect, she doused herself with petrol outside the courthouse and set herself on fire. Khodayari, who was 29, died days later in hospital.

In an interview, a family member said the prospect of having to spend time in Gharchak Prison, a women’s penitentiary in the city of Varamin, had devastated Khodayari.

Over the summer, 200 inmates there protested its inhumane living conditions in an open letter to the government.

Khodayari’s tragic death caused an uproar both in Iran and around the world.

Iran’s law, officially supposed to stop women from gawking at “half-naked men” and to protect them from “vulgar comments” during the game, has now stood for almost 40 years.

Women have been allowed to attend a few games in stadiums, but they still face severe sanction in other cases.

In recent days, Iranian soccer fans have started to sing chants in support of the #BlueGirl, as Khodayari is known.

When Esteghlal played, the players’ jerseys were printed with the words “Blue Girl”, despite the government’s warnings to avoid any mention of her.

Afghan women at a stadium in Kabul held signs honouring her memory. In Turkey and in Saudi Arabia, women have sent messages declaring solidarity in the fight for women’s rights.

Many are now questioning the role of the world’s football authority.

Its former president Sepp Blatter has said, “Football has the power to build a better future […]. FIFA exists because we love the game, recognise its power and feel a strong duty to society.”

But with the 2022 World Cup coming up in another repressive Middle Eastern country, Qatar, whose laws keep women as effective second-class citizens, has FIFA sold its principles for money?

Does world football have any purpose beyond profit?

Embarrassing

Of course, it does, say many. Just think of the huge progress for women everywhere inspired by the FIFA Women’s World Cup this year. And FIFA has published a landmark human rights policy that commits the federation to “upholding the inherent dignity and equal rights of everyone affected by its activities”.

FIFA is a pathetic organisation, say others. It is afraid to cause controversy in Iran because it might upset lucrative World Cup planning. Sure it “reiterated calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any woman engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran”. These maybe the right words, but they’re nothing more than that.

You Decide

  1. Does football make the world a better place?
  2. Should FIFA get involved in shaping the local laws and customs of member countries?

Activities

  1. “Dear FIFA…” Write a letter to FIFA explaining what you think it should do about the death of Sahar Khodayari.
  2. Research women’s rights in Iran. How do you think they are going to change? Write a one-page essay.

Some People Say...

“Shame on me for not having been able to do anything, and shame on those who took away the most obvious right from Sahar and all Sahars.”

Masoud Shojaei, captain of Iran’s football team

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Women in Iran have filed an Ethics Complaint against their federation president, Mehdi Taj, who — despite violating the FIFA statutes’ gender equality rules — was nonetheless elevated in April to vice president of the powerful regional governing body, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
What do we not know?
Whether Iran will ever get around to changing the rules. The government frequently says that it will allow women into football matches and, occasionally, it has let a few into special, women-only areas. But then it reverses the policy and goes back to a total ban.

Word Watch

Esteghlal
An Iranian football club based in capital Tehran, that competes in the Persian Gulf Pro League. The club was founded in 1945 as Docharkheh Savaran, and previously known as Taj Tehran Football.
Tehran
The capital of Iran. With a population of around 8.7 million in the city and 15 million in the larger metropolitan area, it has the second-largest metropolitan area in the Middle East.
FIFA
The “Fédération Internationale de Football Association” describes itself as the highest governing body of football. Today, FIFA has a number of objectives, including growing football internationally, providing efforts to ensure football is accessible to everyone, and advocating for integrity and fair play.

Subjects

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