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Woman dies after setting herself ablaze over Iran stadium jail fears

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A female fan looks on as an Esteghlal FC game is underway
A female fan looks on as an Esteghlal FC game is underway -
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Mehdi Bolourian
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An Iranian female football fan, detained for dressing as a man in order to see her favourite football team play, has died a week after setting herself on fire, according to the semi-official Shafaqna news agency

Sahar Khodayari set herself alight outside a court in Tehran last week after she found herself facing a six-month prison sentence for attempting to enter the Azadi Stadium.

In the line for Tehran-based Esteghlal FC’s match against United Arab Emirates' Al Ain — for an AFC Champions League match — Khodayari was stopped by officials at the entrance to the stadium, whose name means freedom in Farsi.

Khodayari was rushed to a local hospital with severe burns covering 90% of her body and damage to her lungs. She was confirmed dead on Monday night.

Since there are no written laws barring women from entering stadiums, Khodayari was charged for not fully adhering to Islamic hijab laws and covering her head.

A campaigner for OpenStadiums, a movement fighting for female spectators in Iran, told Euronews: “There are no written rules that women are banned from stadiums, this is our big problem. If there are rules you can campaign against it.

"Instead, we are still paying the price for a decades-old clerical argument that the atmosphere in stadiums isn’t suitable for women, that women are somehow responsible for a man’s use of bad language or 'unsuitable' stadium conditions."

This hasn’t always been the case, BBC World Service Journalist Ali Hamedani shared pictures of Iran’s national women’s swimming team published in the magazine Majaleh Zanen before the 1979 revolution. They were taken in the same Azadi stadium at which women are now prohibited from entering.

Mansoureh Mills, Amnesty International’s Iran Researcher told Euronews: “There is no legislation in place, though since 1981 whilst it hasn’t been written into law, the practice has been strictly enforced by Iranian authorities. They make all kinds of excuses - primarily they don’t want men and women to mix, foul language and poor behaviour are all cited as reasons for the ban."

Whilst in recent years women have attended a small handful of matches, Mills says “this was no more than a publicity stunt".

"There were a limited number of seats, located in a cordoned area of the stadium, allocated to specific women," said Mills.

“There was a lot of criticism — the tickets went families of officials — many women tried to enter, but were turned away or arrested."

The exercise was nothing more than “window dressing, intended to subdue international criticism”.

Amnesty has been documenting cases of women detained for attending games.

"The human rights situation has been seriously deteriorating, more and more women arrested for attending football matches, and forced hijab law protests, with harsher prison sentences. Iranian authorities are cracking down on public dissent and women’s rights in general."

Khodayari’s death comes at a critical time, Iran is now the only remaining country to prohibit women access to spectator sports, with Saudi Arabia lifting the ban in 2018.

Last year, President Hassan Rouhani promised FIFA President Gianni Infantino that women would be allowed full access to games.

An anonymous campaigner from OpenStadiums told Euronews of their encounter with Infantino: “I told him this is our daily life, women are being interrogated and imprisoned, just for being advocates for this cause, you should be acting as fast as you can."

In June a letter by Infantino to Mehdi Taj, the president of Iran's soccer federation (FFIRI), initially set a July 15th deadline for Tehran to inform FIFA of "concrete steps" the federation would take to ensure that "all Iranian and foreign women who wish to do so" could attend World Cup qualification games, which start in September.

In response to Khodayari’s death, President Rouhani's deputy for women affairs, Masoumeh Ebtekar, tweeted in Farsi her efforts to follow up on the case, saying the issue of allowing women to enter stadiums is being reviewed by the government and the judiciary.

FIFA’s statement, on the other hand, has drawn widespread criticism.

"FIFA conveys our condolences to the family and friends of Sahar and reiterates 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," it added.

OpenStadiums describe the statement as “senseless”, whilst Amnesty’s Mansoureh Mills told Euronews FIFA’s response was “weak’’.

“FIFA should have a stronger position, they have to take action, it’s September and we haven’t seen any progress’’.

Khodayari's story has gained significant traction on social media. She has been dubbed the "blue girl" in reference to her favourite team’s colours.

Amongst the footballing community, Iran’s National Team have openly pledged their support, whilst AS Roma symbolically changed their logo colours to blue.

Whilst OpenStadiums is pleased with the social media response to Khodayari's story, "whilst journalists and activists are speaking about Sahar’s case - state media has been banned from reporting her death".

“We will have to wait and see, at the end of the day, this will be recorded in history that a girl set herself on fire and nothing happened. If this is truly the case, it's such a shame that FIFA and AFC did nothing’’.

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