Her name was Sahar Khodayari. A 29-year old Iranian woman with a simple dream: to attend a soccer match and cheer for her team. In March 2019, she decided to stand against the misogyny and oppression of Iranian law. She disguised herself as a man and entered the Azadi Soccer Stadium in Iran. When the guards confronted her, she did not hide behind her disguise. She was arrested and later detained for two days in Garchack prison, a place for criminals convicted of violent crimes.
After being released on bail, she was summoned to the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, where she was charged with “openly committing a sinful act” and was given 6 months in prison. After her sentencing, Sahar walked out of the courthouse and set herself on fire. Her self-immolation was her final attempt to be seen and heard.
On September 8, she died from severe burns covering 90 percent of her body. She was secretly buried by the government––without her family’s knowledge––in order to avoid any negative publicity.
Sahar’s death and the injustice that followed it sparked international outrage against Iran’s ban on women entering stadiums to watch men’s sports. Activists inside and outside of Iran demanded an end to the 40-year long gender-segregated “law”. People around the world put pressure on, not only the Iranian regime but the only international organization with a direct influence on this matter: FIFA.
Megan Rapinoe, one of the best female American soccer players and an avid equal rights advocate, paid tribute to Sahar Khodayari while receiving her award for the Best FIFA Women’s Player of the Year. President of the Danish Football Association (DBU), Jesper Moller, called on FIFA to sanction Iran: “The rules are clear. Discrimination cannot be tolerated”.
Masih Alinjead, a prominent Iranian-American journalist, living in exile, has been at the forefront in the fight for gender equality. Through her “My Stealthy Freedom” and “White Wednesdays” online campaigns, she has been a voice for Iranian women. Alinejad, among other advocates, has called out FIFA for violating its constitution, which explicitly states, “discrimination of any kind is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.”
On September 19, after days of mounting pressure, FIFA President Gianni Infantino released a statement stating: “Our position is clear and firm. Women have to be allowed into football stadiums in Iran.” Later that month, FIFA sent a group of delegations to Tehran to make sure women will be able to attend the Iran-Cambodia World Cup qualifier game on October 10.
Six days before the game, Iran announced that 3,500 seats would be allocated to women, which sold out immediately. The Azadi Stadium in Tehran holds around 90,000 seats, but in the end, only 4,600 were reserved for Iranian women–just 5% of the stadium. Even though this is a historic win for women in Iran, the work is not done yet. The demand has been clear all along: women and men should be receiving equal access to Iranian stadiums.
While many women are celebrating their first-ever experience inside a stadium, advocates fear this is only a temporary change. Iran’s stadium ban on women is not an official law but has been ruthlessly enforced. How can an unwritten law be abolished? The question remains unanswered, but any answer must include broad and systemic changes in the way the Iranian government views women’s rights.
On Thursday, due to the limited number of tickets available to women, thousands cheered for their team from outside Azadi. Videos from inside the stadium showed female Basiji police–threatening to arrest or escort out anyone holding a sign in remembrance of Sahar Khodayari– a reminder that this incremental “freedom” comes with restrictions.
Sahar’s death was a tragedy that brought attention to a 40 year-long fight for equality. She was not the first Iranian woman to suffer from mistreatment at the hands of the government and society, and unfortunately, for now, she will not be the last. Since the Iranian Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iranian women have been fighting for their fundamental human rights. Not being allowed to enter stadiums is among the innumerable ways they have been discriminated against. Under Iran’s Islamic law, they are deprived of certain freedoms such as singing or dancing in public and traveling abroad without the permission of a male guardian.
They have suffered from acid attacks, police brutality, sexism, and rape; they have broken cultural and religious barriers simply to be heard. Khodayari’s story is proof that international pressure and advocacy can lead to incremental progress in the face of human rights violations. Ultimately, the Iranian government lifted the ban not because they wanted to but because they had to.
Sahar’s death for freedom was a tragedy in a country where lives are regularly lost in the fight for human rights. Iranian people need the international community to stand up, not only with them but for them in their fight for equality and freedom because their government has proven it will not.