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Arrested for entering football stadium, Sahar Khodayari, known as the “Blue Girl”, dies in Iran after setting herself on fire

An Iranian football fan who set herself on fire a week ago has died. Sahar Khodayari, 29, set herself alight in Tehran after her trial, for attempting to enter a football stadium disguised as a man, was postponed. She has been dubbed the “Blue Girl” on social media, after the colours of her favourite football team.

“This senseless tragedy should be a turning point for Iran’s government, which has been ignoring calls by its people to lift its discriminatory ban on women in stadiums, and is now facing the human costs of that policy,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

Khodayari was arrested in March after she had dressed as a man and attempted to enter Iran’s national football stadium Azadi in Tehran to watch a match between her favourite team, Esteghlal of Iran, and Al-Ain of the United Arab Emirates, during the AFC Asian Cup.

“Dear Sahar, the Azadi stadium will regret never seeing you,” wrote Farhad Majidi, a former Esteghlal player and coach.

After being jailed for three days she was released on bail and waited six months for her court case. But when she appeared at court she found out it had been postponed because the judge had a family emergency. She then set herself alight in front of the court and, on 9 September, died in hospital. Khodayari was suffering from bipolar disorder and her time spent in jail made her condition worse, her sister reportedly told the Iranian outlet Rokna in an earlier interview, HRW said.

“Her only ‘crime’ was being a woman in a country where women face discrimination that is entrenched in law and plays out in the most horrific ways imaginable in every area of their lives, even sports,” Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East Research and Advocacy Director, said in a statement.

Women in Iran have been banned from going to stadiums to watch men’s sporting events since 1981. This was temporarily lifted last year to allow women to watch the World Cup being streamed at a stadium in Tehran. While the stadium ban is not written into law or regulation – Khodayari faced charges for “improperly wearing hijab”, it is ruthlessly enforced by the country’s authorities.

Masoud Shojaei, the captain of the Iran men’s football team, said on Instagram that the ban is “rooted in outdated and cringe-worthy thoughts that will not be understood by future generations”.

Human rights organisations are now calling on FIFA, football’s world governing body, to end the ban.

“This discriminatory ban must end immediately and the international community – including football’s world governing body, FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation – must take urgent action to end the ban and to ensure that women are allowed access to all sports stadiums without discrimination or risk of prosecution or punishment,” Amnesty said.

FIFA had set a deadline of 31 August for Iran to allow women into stadiums – something the country has not yet guaranteed.

In a statement, the organisation 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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