Last spring, a young woman named Sahar Khodayari went to see her favorite Iranian soccer team, Esteghlal, play at Azadi Stadium in Tehran. “Azadi” means “freedom” in Persian, but Khodayari wasn’t free to enter the stadium that day because Iranian women are barred from attending soccer matches. So she dressed as a man, wearing Esteghlal’s blue team color. Security guards stopped her, and she confessed that she was a woman. Khodayari was arrested and held in jail for three days, then released pending a court hearing.

As was later widely reported, earlier this month Khodayari appeared for her court date and learned that the case had been postponed but apparently also found out that she might face a jail term of anywhere from six months to two years. Fearing that prospect, she doused herself with gasoline outside the courthouse and set herself on fire. Khodayari, who was 29, died days later in a hospital.

In an interview, a family member said the prospect of having to spend time in Gharchak Prison, a women’s penitentiary in the city of Varamin, had devastated Khodayari. Over the summer, 200 inmates there protested its inhumane living conditions in an open letter to the government. Yet, soon, another story line about Khodayari emerged: Her father, during an interview with official Iranian media, blamed his daughter’s self-immolation on “nervous troubles.” Khodayari was cast by the regime-friendly Iranian media as mentally unstable.

Regardless of the characterization’s accuracy, it was a distraction from the outrageousness of the ban on women at soccer matches. The Islamic republic’s systematic oppression of women — under the guise of protecting their chastity and piety — extends far beyond soccer, including the forced wearing of the hijab and matters of marriage, divorce and child custody. Women protesting for their rights are frequently imprisoned, but these episodes attract relatively little attention. Khodayari’s tragic death caused an uproar both in Iran and around the world.

Iranian soccer fans have sung in support of the “Blue Girl,” as Khodayari came to be known. Some posted on Twitter with the hashtags #LetIranianWomenIn and #BlueGirl. When Esteghlal played recently, the players’ jerseys were printed with the words “Blue Girl,” despite the government’s warnings to avoid any mention of her.

Khodayari’s arrest and death resonated far beyond Iran with women who live under oppression. Afghan women at a stadium in Kabul held signs honoring her memory. In Turkey and in Saudi Arabia, women have sent messages to their Iranian sisters declaring solidarity in the fight for women’s rights.

As for their peers in the United States, they have been mostly silent, alas. Decades ago, American feminists saw themselves in a global sisterhood fighting the same battle for women everywhere. But the rise of theocratic regimes, peddling misogynist practices as indigenous traditions, has undermined the old camaraderies; now, respect for cultural sovereignty takes precedence.

The rise of nativist bigotry against U.S. Muslims has further discouraged feminists in the United States from speaking against violations of Muslim women’s rights in the Middle East. American feminists, and progressives in the United States generally, have yet to reckon with the demands of these complex times. Condemning hateful acts against Muslims in the United States doesn’t prevent anyone from working to eradicate gender apartheid under Islamic regimes.

Khodayari’s tragic protest was not the first effort to draw attention to Iran’s prohibition of women at soccer games. For years, female activists have protested outside stadiums, and some have glued on fake beards and mustaches, entering stadiums as men. In March, according to the BBC, 35 women were detained by police as they tried to attend a match. 

The government periodically hints at changing the policy when it knows the outside world will be watching. Last fall, hundreds of women were allowed to sit in a designated “family” section during an Asian Champions League game in Tehran attended by Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, which is soccer’s world governing body. But after attention turns elsewhere, the ban returns. 

Infantino said Sunday that Iranian officials had told him women would be allowed to attend a World Cup qualifying game on Oct. 10 in Tehran. But as far as dropping the ban permanently, a FIFA statement said only that the idea was being “discussed.” Now would be a good time for anyone who cares about women’s rights — and for every soccer mom, every soccer fan — to put pressure on FIFA: If Iran doesn’t end the ban totally, not just for one high-profile game — then FIFA should bar Iran from international competition until the policy is officially abandoned.

During the 1950s, Iran’s most prominent female poet, Forough Farrokhzad, wrote a line that became the mantra of the opposition against the monarchy of the time: “Remember flight! The bird is mortal.” Interpreted as a call to sacrifice on behalf of freedom, the passage still inspires today as a new generation dreams of an Iran that doesn’t just build stadiums named for freedom, but grants it to all citizens.

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