On the 2nd of September, 2019, Saḥar Khodāyārī attempted to put an early end to her own life through an act of self-immolation. A week later, the Iranian young woman died from her injuries. Such a tragic death caused strong reactions, from both within and outside the country, for Saḥar acted out of fear of a prosecution by the Iranian judiciary.
As a supporter of the football team Esteqlāl-e Tehrān, she tried to attend a match in the Āzādī Stadium, in March 2019. Since an unwritten and tacit law prohibits Iranian women from being present at such events, Saḥar had to disguise herself as a man. Unfortunately, the security guards spotted her. She was arrested on the official charges of “openly committing a sinful act by appearing in public without a ḥejāb” and “insulting officials”. Released after a few days in custody, she was eventually summoned to a Revolutionary Court. There, she heard that she may face up to six-months in prison. In response to this unwelcomed perspective, she set herself in fire in front of the court.
While there is no official policy that prohibits women from attending massive sports events in Iran, an informal women-ban has emerged since the rise of the Islamic Republic. This informal practice is based on the principle of gender separation in public spaces. In response to the pressure exerted by the reformist camp and FIFA to lift the women-ban, the Attorney-General of Iran Moḥammad Ğaʿfar Montaẓerī stated to Mehr News Agency: “When a woman enters a stadium and sees half-naked men in sports jerseys, it will lead to sinful acts.” Nevertheless and following Saḥar’s death, the government spokesperson ʿAlī Rabīʿī assured that women’s presence within Iranian stadium will increase “step by step”.
Saḥar will be remembered as “Doḫtar-e ābī”, the blue girl, in reference to the colour of her favourite team. She has arisen as a symbol of the harmful effect of oppressive policies based on gender-segregation that affect Iranian women on daily basis. In reaction to this tragic event, criticisms have been voiced in Iran. The reformist member of the Parliament, Parvāneh Salaḥšūrī stated on twitter: “(…) She was the daughter of Iran, the country where men decide for women and deprived them from their most basic human rights. We are all responsible for the arrests and burns that every Saḥars face in this country”.
Concerns of another kind were raised among the Iranian conservatists. Tasnīm News Agency denounced the instrumentalization of the affair by foreign powers and the reformist’s political abuses. The media also tried to undermine the political feature of Saḥar’s death by claiming that she was mentally unstable. However, this tragic fate appears to be more than an isolated incident but rather symptomatic of a larger Iran’s continual repressive policies towards women. In order to silence the debate, Iranian intelligence officers prohibited Saḥar’s family from organizing any memorial ceremony for the sake of preventing any prejudice made against Iranian interests.