KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- FIFA’s inability to persuade Iran to relent on its ban on female football fans has ended in tragedy with the death of a woman who set herself on fire last week after being arrested for entering a ground dressed as a man.

The semi-official Shafaqna news agency said 30-year-old  Sahar Khodayari - called ‘Blue Girl’ online for her favourite team Esteghlal’s colours – died in hospital on Monday after her self-immolation outside a court following indications of a six-month jail sentence.

Foreign women have been allowed limited access to matches but, despite pressure from the world federation and human rights pressure groups, the Iranian authorities have maintained a stadium ban on women when men’s teams are playing.

Iranian World Cup fans demand equal stadium rights

The ban was imposed shortly after the Islamic revolution in 1979 but the authorities had been set a July 15 deadline to lift it by FIFA. Clearly the world federation’s order has been ignored though a statement from the world federation was not condemnatory.

FIFA said merely: “We have learned of some very sad news from Iran and deeply regret this tragedy. FIFA conveys its condolences to the family and friends of Sahar.

“We reiterate our calls on Iranian authorities to ensure freedom and safety of any women engaged in legitimate fight to end stadium ban.”

State interference

The death of Khodayari was the second controversy in a week over state interference in Iranian sport. Last week one of Iran’s judo players fled the country after being ordered to withdraw from a competition in case he were to come up against a rival from Israel.

FIFA position on discrimination leaves no room for doubt. Its statutes state:

Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of race, skin colour, ethnic, national or social origin, gender, disability, language, religion, political opinion or any other opinion, wealth, birth or any other status, sexual orientation or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion.

Logically, Iran should now face a warning of expulsion from the Asian qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.

By unhappy coincidence the men’s national team began their campaign with Tuesday’s 2-0 win away to Hongkong. Their next scheduled match is a home tie against Cambodia in the Azadi stadium in Tehran on October 10.

Far more direct in reaction than FIFA was Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East research and advocacy director.

He said: “What happened to Sahar Khodayari is heartbreaking, 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.”

One Twitter individual,  identified as IranLionness posted: “FIFA. Let’s see if you have the guts just for once to stand against women’s rights violation in Iran.”

Infantino appeal

In a letter to the Iranian authorities back in April FIFA president Gianni Infantino said: “Whilst we are aware of the challenges and cultural sensitivities, we simply have to continue making progress here, not only because we owe it to women all over the world, but also because we have a responsibility to do so, under the most basic principles set out in the FIFA statutes.

“In the circumstances I would be very grateful if you could inform FIFA, at your earliest convenience but no later than 15 July 2019, as to the concrete steps which both the FFIRI [Football Federation Islamic Republic of Iran] and the Iranian state authorities will now be taking in order to ensure that all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so will be allowed to buy tickets and to attend the matches of the qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.”

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