FIFA must act after death of Iran's 'Blue Girl,' says activist

Iranian football activist Maryam Shojaei urges FIFA to end the ban on female football fans being allowed to watch games in Iran, following the death of Sahar Khodayari.

Posted: Sep 12, 2019 11:40 AM
Updated: Sep 12, 2019 11:40 AM

An Iranian activist is lashing out at FIFA following the death of a female fan who set herself on fire after she was denied access to a soccer stadium in Tehran.

Maryam Shojaei is a member of the women's advocacy group @OpenStadiums, which lobbies against Iran's longtime ban on females attending sporting events at stadiums in the country.

Her brother, Masoud Shojaei, is the captain of Iran's national football team.

She says the sport's world governing body hasn't done enough to confront the ban, especially in the wake of 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari's death.

Dubbed the "Blue Girl" on social media, after the colors of her favorite Iranian soccer team, Esteghlal, Khodayari, was charged with "'openly committing a sinful act by "appearing in public without a hijab'" when she attempted to enter a stadium "dressed as a man" in March, according to human rights group Amnesty International.

Khodayari appeared in a Tehran court last week. When the case was adjourned, she poured gasoline over herself and set herself on fire. She died on Monday September 9.

Khodayari was suffering from bipolar disorder and her time spent in jail made her condition worse, her sister reportedly told Iranian news outlet Rokna in an earlier interview, HRW said.

Iran's Judiciary has been asked to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Khodayari's death, the country's semi-official Fars News agency reported Thursday.

According to Fars, Khodayari was transferred to Tehran's Motahhari Hospital with third-degree burns on 90% of her body and severe damage to her lungs.

The news agency also said that her father had claimed that Khodayari suffered from mental illness and had "stopped treatment against her doctor's repeated warnings."

Khodayari's father has also asked the public to stop "misusing his daughter's death" and to show "respect" for the family, Fars reported.

Her death has sparked anger both in Iran and across the world.

Activist Shojaei told CNN that she has written eight letters to FIFA President Gianni Infantino to inform him of the current challenges faced by female soccer fans in Iran.

She also says she delivered a letter to FIFA's secretary general Fatma Samoura and urged her to take action.

"I think FIFA is the one to blame and if they enforced their own human rights and gender discrimination rules, Sahar would have been alive today," she said.

"They said they would ask Iran to end this ban and to provide safety for women but releasing a statement is one thing and enforcing it ... this issue is time sensitive. You know we cannot wait. We have been waiting for 40 years and I think that's more than enough.

"Now FIFA has to take action immediately by enforcing its own human rights rules."

FIFA responded, saying it "refutes any suggestion it has been inactive in the fight for these women's rights in Iran. We are working with the Iranian Football Association in the hope and expectation that women will be in attendance at future games beginning with the FIFA World Cup qualifiers in October."

Iran's ban on women attending sports stadiums was put in place shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Amnesty and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have both called on football's world governing body FIFA to end the ban.

In June, FIFA sent a letter to the Iranian Football Federation (FFIRI), requesting a timeline that would allow women to be able to buy tickets for World Cup qualifiers, Reuters reported.

Iran's men's national team faces Cambodia in a World Cup qualifier in Tehran on October 10 -- a game Shojaei hopes women will be allowed to attend.

"I'm very positive that by October 10 it will let women inside and what happened to Sahar and the whole international attention this issue received, I think the problem is going to be solved."

Khodayari's death has sparked a global outcry.

Her favorite club, Esteghlal, published a statement on its website mourning her death and players held a moment of silence in her honor on Wednesday.

"The tragic death of our beloved child, Ms. Sahar Khodayari, has caused much sadness and regret for Esteghlal FC," the club said.

"We offer condolences to you and your relatives, ask God for mercy and forgiveness and also patience and health for your family and all soccer fans."

Several women's soccer players are calling on FIFA to act.

Sweden star Kosovare Asllani tweeted: "I have a platform and I have never been afraid of raising my voice when in need. This is a tragedy and it can't continue anymore. @FIFAcom it's time to act and not be silent. WE need to help the women of Iran fight against gender apartheid. This is about human rights!#SaharKhodayari."

Fellow Sweden international Hedvig Lindahl also tweeted her support, writing: "Hi @FIFAcom - it is overdue to do something for the women in Iran. This is not okay. Rest in peace #SaharKhodayari, a very brave woman!"

Magdalena Eriksson, who plays for Chelsea and Sweden added: "What a horrible tragedy @FIFAcom and any other organization that's in a position of privilege and power, you need to act to make this stop! RIP #SaharKhodayari."

In an earlier statement, FIFA said: "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."

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