Why does it take tragedy for the world, and the football world, to sit up and pay attention? The self-immolation of young Iranian "Blue Girl" Sahar Khodayari also lays FIFA's impotence bare, says Joscha Weber.
To convey a message close to her heart, Sahar Khodayari gave her most valuable possession, her life. On September 1, the 29-year-old Iranian doused herself in petrol in front of Tehran's Islamic Revolutionary Court and set herself alight. She had been sentenced to jail, because she'd attended football games — something that's still verboten for Iranian women.
Khodayari wanted to send a message, a tragic and terrible one. Yet even this extreme cry for help went unheard for some time. Even as social media interest snowballed in the fate of the "Blue Girl," so called because of the masculine blue clothing she'd worn as part of her disguise, world football's governing body stayed silent.
It took FIFA nine days to react, to an act that cast a dark shadow over the game it administers. In a statement on Tuesday, FIFA expressed condolences to Khodayari's family and friends, and reiterated "our calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure the freedom and safety of any woman engaged in this legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran." These may be the right words, but they're nothing more than that.
FIFA acting as if its hands were tied
Besides those bearing responsibility in Iran's government, legal system, and football association — all of whom are clinging to a wholly untenable, outmoded worldview based on the crudest of gender stereotypes — FIFA is also scarcely covering itself in glory. One of its members, the Iranian FA, is actively supporting the exclusion of half a country's population from football matches, and FIFA acts as if its hands were tied. World football's main authority evidently doesn't dare do much more than direct the odd timid appeal at Tehran.
And FIFA's been more than willing to take action, swiftly, in other contexts: In recent years, FIFA has suspended the football associations of Greece, Sudan and Sierra Leone (all because of politics interfering in football), as well as Pakistan (because of the seizure of association property by a legally appointed administrator). But when women are thrown in jail for going to watch a football game, FIFA seems to see no cause for sanction. It's an embarrassing display.
The Sahar Khodayari Stadium?
FIFA's other planned response, sending a team of observers to Iran, and the Iranian federation's plans to allow women to attend the next national team game against Cambodia (but *only* that game), can both be chalked up as efforts to let some pressure out of the boiler.
Football stadiums the world over would benefit from more female fans, but Iran's active exclusion of them is something different entirely
Iran's law, officially supposed to stop women from gawking at "half-naked men" and to protect them from "vulgar comments" during the game, has now stood for almost 40 years. Women have been allowed to attend a few games in stadiums, but they still face severe sanction in other cases.
Only now does it occur to FIFA that this might just be a little discriminatory. It's time for a change in FIFA's approach regarding Iran. And perhaps that might pave the way, one day, for an Iranian stadium named after the country's latest football hero: Sahar Khodayari.