What about Iranian women and football?

Remembering Sahar Khodayari, the “Blue Girl”.

Sahar Khodayari committed suicide on 9th September of 2019 at the age of 29 years old. She immolated herself after knowing that she could have spent from 6 months to up to 2 years in prison for being dressed as a man while trying to enter the Azadi Stadium in Tehran on March 2019.  

What is the current situation in Iran when it comes to women and sports, particularly football? Why should a woman come to the point of thinking about ending her own life for the crime of wanting to attend a football match? A bit of a very brief and summarized historic background is needed before talking about the current situation and the latest events.  

In 1979 the Iranian population began to protest in what is today known as the Islamic Revolution, a reaction to the White Revolution started in 1963 by the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In fact, with the White Revolution, the Shah wanted to modernize the country with a western perspective, implementing important development and economic reforms close to liberalism, improving and creating new ways of transport, putting money in health-related and environmental resources projects, and investing in the education of the population, mostly living in the rural areas. Moreover, the Shah planned to initiate reforms in order to empower the women in Iran, starting from giving them the right to vote in the same year. These new reforms were made with the purpose to make Iran part of the new asset of the world after the II WW, with a filo-western orientation. Exactly for this reason the Iranian population, guided by the Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhollah Mūsavi Khomeini, started protesting the Shah in the second part of the 70s, accusing him of being too modern and too close to the US, leaving behind and compromising the traditional principles of the Middle Eastern culture. This led to the creation of an anti-western theocracy in Iran on the 1st April 1979 with a theocratic-republican constitution.  

Women had a peculiar role inside the Revolution, so that when the Republic of Iran was established, the Ayatollah Khomeini credited their work without which the Revolution could have not been possible, he said. The women participated in the Revolution united by the wish for the fall of the monarchy, but this was not the case when it came to the perspective for the future of the country and mostly for the future of the women living inside of it. Many of them believed that with the Revolution an even more flourishing period was about to start for women, based on the achievements related to women’s rights that they were able to obtain in the previous decades. Until that time, they were represented in politics, economics, the army, science and technology. After the installment of the new theocracy based on the precepts of the Koran, women were prevented from studying 140 fields in higher education in all of Iran and overall they were pushed back from the public workplaces to more traditional family private sphere, loosing almost all their freedom and rights.  

This led to a backlash also in the field of sports. Women nowadays are not allowed to attend any kind of sport event, even though they can play sports. Nonetheless, even if they can play sports, they are not allowed to leave the country without the permission of one male component of their family, like the husband, father or brother. This can prevent women from attending competitions internationally, even if they are part of a team. This happened for example to Niloufar Ardalan, the captain of the female Iranian football team: she couldn’t play an international tournament in Malaysia in September 2015 because her husband forbade her from traveling, since he believed she had to be present on the first day of school of their son.  

With these last sentences it is clear how the traditional, patriarchal and stereotypical idea of women and their duties towards the family are in place in Iran. The woman is not seen as a complete human being with human rights, but firstly as a wife, a mother, a daughter that must respect her duties towards the family. Women can clearly observe that their gender is not respected and represented in Iran. Instead they are repeatedly forced into subjugation against their will by restrictive fundamentalist laws. Within this framework, they cannot express themselves when they want to participate in a sport event, without challenging the Islamic law, dressing like males, hiding and trying to avoid the police to enter the stadiums. This is what Sahar Khodayari did on March 2019, as many other women have done before and after her. She was guilty for having been recognized as a woman not wearing the hijab by the controlling police outside the Tehran stadium. Since in Iran the women have no freedom of expression and movement, she decided to kill herself instead of facing the judgmental court and being assigned to months or in the worst-case years of jail and tortures because of her acts.  

Sahar Khodayari was born in Salm, a village in Chahar Mahal in the Bakhtiari province. She lived in Qom, Iran and according to her family she held a bachelor’s degree in computer science and translation. Her father said that she wanted to become a police officer before entering the university, but it would have been impossible for her being “a girl with a weak body” he said. Her sister reported that Sahar had always loved to watch football and be an independent woman. Surely, she was brave enough to face the Islamic law and the rules of her country in order to express herself, even if this meant a high risk for her, that in the end led to her death.  

 In Iran the organization Open Stadium specifically demands for the right of women to enter stadiums and attend sports matches. This is made keeping in mind that women must first obtain the right to enter public spaces freely, without restrictions, something that they are not able to do since “clerics argue that they must be shielded from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.” It is sad to say that only after the big scandal of the “Blue Girl”, as Sahar Khodayari was nick-named after the colors of her favorite Iranian team Esteghlal, the international community and in particular the FIFA started to consider the situation of women’s rights in Iran. On 10th of October of this year, women were allowed to attend a football match for the first time after 40 years, the 2022 World Cup qualifier between Iran and Cambodia. Since the start of the Islamic Revolution in 1979, women were allowed into stadiums only on two occasions: in the 2001 World Cup qualifier between Ireland and Iran, when 20 Irish women could enter the stadium, and in 2005 when a dozen of Iranian women was allowed to attend part of the Iranian national football team playing against Bahrain. The Iranian ban on women inside stadiums is not written in laws or regulations, but it has become an enforced norm through the years.  

The participation of women at the football game is a big achievement for Iranian society that can give hope for future developments. Most importantly it shows how effective the pressure of civil society sustained by the global community can be, and how internet and social media can be an effective tool to speak up and change our reality. Still Iranian women were allowed access to only 3.500 seats on 100.000 at first, increased to 4.600 after the high request of the tickets available, only representing almost the 5% of the total, which led to the spread of the new hashtag #WakeUpFIFA as a protest. Indeed, the tickets reserved for women were sold immediately, with a lot of women travelling from the south of Iran in order to get one, like the sport journalist Raha Poorbakhsh. However, many were still unable to buy tickets for the match.  

With this article I want to remember Sahar Khodayari and all the women who fought and will fight for the recognition of their rights as human rights, and for the freedom of the women in sports, where a lot of inequalities are still present even in western society in relation to the gender pay gap, recognition as professionals players and visibility on the international and national media channels. There is still a lot to do, but together we can smash the patriarchy still heavily present in all sports fields. There is a need to speak, campaign, resist and reverse the structure behind these cultural norms.  

It’s time to Stand up and speak up!!  

Written by Martina Fontana, WAVE Intern

Image by Hadi Yazdi from Unsplash


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