Written by Farnaz Fassihi (Tariq Panja contributed reporting from London.)
Her dream was to watch a soccer match from a stadium in Iran, where women are banned from attending most sports events.
So Sahar Khodayari, 29, sneaked into Azadi Stadium, Tehran’s main sporting venue. But she was arrested.
Sentenced to six months in prison, she set herself on fire in front of the courthouse on Sept. 2. She died in a Tehran hospital this week from severe burns covering 90% of her body.
Her death has sparked an outcry from Iranian and international soccer players.
Many Iranians, including a former captain of the national team, are calling for a boycott of soccer games until the ban on women attending matches is lifted. Several officials expressed shock and outrage at what had happened to Khodayari.
“Some issues can be resolved simply but we turn them into deep social scars for which we have no answer to history,” said Fareed Mousavi, a lawmaker on the parliament’s youth committee. “We need to rectify these unjust discriminations before it’s too late.”
The game Khodayari had wanted to see took place in March between her favorite team, Esteghlal, against a team from the United Arab Emirates.
Blue is the color of the Esteghlal team, and as news spread that one of its female fans had set herself on fire, Khodayari became known on social media as the “Blue Girl,” with a hashtag, #BlueGirl, bringing attention to the ban.
Masoumeh Ebtekar, President Hassan Rouhani’s vice president for women and family affairs — the highest ranking woman in the Iranian government — issued a statement expressing “deep regret and sadness” for Khodayari’s death.
She said her office had appointed a representative to follow the case since news of the burning surfaced, and said the representative had met with the mother and sister of the victim in the hospital.
Ebtekar said a written report on the case had been submitted to the judiciary Saturday, and the topic of allowing women in stadiums was discussed in a Cabinet meeting Sunday.
Iran banned women entering soccer stadiums after the 1979 Islamic revolution, when religious laws were enforced to segregate men and women in public spaces like schools, buses and sports events. For more than a decade, Iranian rights activists, feminists and die-hard soccer fans have waged a battle to regain the right for women to attend games.
By 2005, activists gathered weekly outside the Azadi stadium carrying signs that read “let the other half of the society in.” A small group dressed in male clothes, sporting fake facial hair and cutting their hair and hiding it under caps and sneaking into the stadium.
Their activism gradually gained the attention of international rights groups and the Iranian public. It was also the subject of a 2006 movie, “Offside,” by famed Iranian director Jaffar Panahai.
By 2013, women had organized more formally, creating the group Open Stadium, and were lobbying with FIFA, international soccer’s governing body; local soccer teams; and international human rights organizations to pressure Iran’s government.
FIFA has warned Iran to lift the ban on women attending international soccer matches by Oct. 10, when the country’s national team — among the top in Asia — is to host a World Cup qualifying game.
In some cases, to relieve pressure from FIFA, Iran has selectively allowed limited number of women, mostly relatives of players or government officials, to attend certain soccer games. But women are not allowed to buy tickets for the events.
“They are basically trying to manipulate FIFA,” said Omid Memarian, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group. “Even though FIFA has been notified of Iran’s repeated violations and manipulation tactics to allow women in, still Iran has gotten away with this discrimination.”
After Khodayari’s death, FIFA said in a statement, “We are aware of that tragedy and deeply regret it.”
In the statement, the group said it repeated its “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.”
Iran officials have said in the past that structural changes in the arena were needed for women to attend, including the creation of a special section for them.
FIFA told the Iranian federation it would send a delegation later this month to ensure the changes were made in time for the Oct. 10 game, according to an official familiar with the discussions, who asked to remain anonymous because the matter is sensitive in Iran.
Still, many Iranians and human rights activists Tuesday blamed FIFA for not taking a stronger stand against the ban. International soccer stars said in Twitter posts that FIFA should step up and enforce its regulations banning member countries from discriminating on the basis of gender and race.
Maryam Shojaei, the sister of Iran’s national team captain, Masoud Soleimani Shojaei, has been among the female leaders campaigning for women to be allowed to attend games.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Shojaei said “FIFA was to blame” for what happened because it had allowed Iranian authorities to escape sanction despite activists’ pleas for intervention, including banning Iran from international soccer games until it lifted the ban.
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