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Iranians, Foreigners Mourn 'Blue Girl,' Urge End To Ban On Female Soccer Fans

Vigils have been held for Iranian woman Sahar Khodayari, who died after setting herself alight outside a courthouse where she had been summoned after being arrested for trying to enter a football stadium dressed as a man.

The tragic death of a young Iranian woman who was arrested while trying to sneak into a stadium to watch a men's soccer match has led to an outpouring of grief, outrage, and calls for FIFA to ensure Iran ends a ban on female spectators that has endured for 40 years.

Twenty-nine-year old Sahar Khodayari died several days after setting herself alight on September 2 outside a courthouse where she had been summoned after being arrested for trying to enter Tehran's Azadi Stadium in March dressed as a man.

A group of Iranians held a candlelight vigil in the Iranian capital on September 12 at the location where Sahar set herself on fire.

Sahar, nicknamed the "Blue Girl" after the main color of her favorite team, the famous Tehran club Esteghlal, had reportedly been told that she could be sentenced to six months in prison.

Sahar's sister said she had attempted in mid-March to sneak into a soccer match at the Azadi Stadium while wearing a blue wig and wearing a long coat to look more like a man. She was spotted by security personnel and admitted she was a woman before being detained.

"You won't be forgotten, Blue Girl," said a handwritten note left at the vigil.

Earlier in the week, Esteghlal players held a moment of silence before a practice session in tribute to their departed fan.

Esteghlal's main rival, Persepolis, did the same, with many on social media calling on the football players to remember Sahar during officials matches while others said the teams should stop playing their scheduled games until women are allowed into stadiums.

Amnesty International said Sahar's "heartbreaking" plight "exposes the impact of the Iranian authorities' appalling contempt for women's rights in the country."

"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," Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, Philip Luther, said in a statement while adding that Sahar's death must not be in vain.

"It must spur change in Iran if further tragedies are to be avoided in the future."

'Make This Stop!'

Many other soccer players and clubs – including in the West -- called on FIFA, the sport's world governing body, to take action to make Iran end the discriminatory ban on female spectators.

"FIFA or any other organization that's in a position of privilege and power, you need to act to make this stop!" Magdalena Eriksson, a soccer player for Chelsea's women's team in London, wrote in a tweet.

Italian club A.S. Roma said on Twitter that its colors are yellow and red while adding "but today our heart bleeds blue for Sahar Khodayari."

Sahar Khodayari (file photo)
Sahar Khodayari (file photo)

The popular club added: "Now it's time for everyone in Iran to be allowed to enjoy football matches together. RIP #BlueGirl"

"We were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Sahar Khodayari. Football is a sport for all and we believe stadiums must be open to all," Chelsea's men's team said on Twitter.

The head of the Denmark Football Association (DBU) said FIFA should sanction Iran if it continues to ban women from attending sports events in stadiums.

"The rules are clear. Discrimination cannot be tolerated," Jesper Moller, president of the Danish Football Association (DBU), told the September 12 edition of the Copenhagen daily Politiken.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino urged Iranian authorities in a June letter to take "concrete steps" to allow women to attend games.

In past years, only selected groups of women have been allowed into stadiums to watch soccer matches or other men's sporting events. Women have occasionally defied the ban and entered stadiums, sometimes dressed as men.

Earlier this year, Iranian Sports Minister Masud Soltanifar suggested that measures are being taken to allow women into stadiums.

On August 25, Iran seemed to have finally relented when Deputy Sports Minister Jamshid Tahizade announced that women would be allowed to attend Iran's World Cup qualifying match against Cambodia in October.

'The Daughter Of Iran'

FIFA said on September 11 that it will send officials to Iran soon to look at the possibility of allowing women into football games in the country.

"A FIFA delegation will be on site shortly to assess the preparations to allow women at the stadium for the upcoming World Cup qualifying match in October," FIFA told the AFP news agency.

"The heart-rending death of the Blue Girl should open the doors of stadiums to all Iranians," Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist politician who was imprisoned for several years, said on Twitter, while reformist lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri called Sahar "the daughter of Iran."

Emadi Baghi, a widely respected human rights defender and investigative journalist, said Tehran's Azadi Stadium should be named "Sahar" or "Sahar-e Azadi" (the dawn of freedom), to pay tribute to Khodayari, who died several days after setting herself alight.

Unconfirmed reports suggested that she died on September 7 or 8 but her death was only announced on September 9 after her burial under tight security measures in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom.

"For 40 years we've called a stadium Azadi (freedom) while there is nothing in common between the [stadium and that word]," Baghi wrote on Twitter.

Pressure has been growing on the Islamic government in recent years to remove the ban on female spectators, with many rights activists and Iranian soccer stars condemning it as discriminatory.

Prominent Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi documented the issue in his 2006 award-winning movie Offside, which showed how female football fans were detained after attempting to enter a stadium to watch a World Cup qualifying match.

Panahi said after making the movie that some people asked him if he wasn't concerned that "tomorrow" the ban would be lifted and his movie would be quickly outdated.

"Thirteen years later, women in the Islamic republic are the only citizens in the world who remain 'offside,'" Panahi wrote in a post on Instagram.