ISTANBUL — Sahar Khodayari’s favorite soccer team was playing on a spring night in Iran’s capital, Tehran, and she decided to sneak into the city’s main stadium for a glimpse.
In Iran, a Shiite Muslim theocracy, women are barred from entering stadiums during male sporting events, so Khodayari disguised herself as a man. But security guards soon stopped her and handed her over to police, who charged Khodayari with “insulting officials” and appearing in public without a headscarf, according to London-based Amnesty International.
On Tuesday, local media outlets reported that Khodayari had died at a hospital in Tehran after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse last week. The 29-year-old was facing prison time for trying to enter the stadium and overheard court officials discussing her potential sentence when she set herself alight, one media outlet quoted her sister as saying.
The case has led to a debate in Iran about the decision to bar women from men’s soccer matches and prompted several celebrities and sports stars to speak out. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, had warned Tehran in June to take concrete steps to allow women to attend games.
“To our knowledge, Iran is the only country in the world that stops and punishes women seeking to enter football stadiums,” Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director, said in a statement Tuesday.
“This discriminatory ban must end immediately and the international community, including football’s world governing body, FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation, must take urgent action to end the ban and to ensure that women are allowed access to all sports stadiums without discrimination or risk of prosecution or punishment,” he said.
The ban on women’s attendance at male sporting events dates to 1981, two years after the Islamic revolution overthrew Iran’s monarch. In recent years, female soccer fans in Iran have pushed for the ban to be lifted, including staging protests outside during matches.
“The stadium ban is not written into law or regulation but is ruthlessly enforced by the country’s authorities,” said Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch. She urged FIFA to “urgently … uphold its own human rights rules, end gender discrimination and punish violators.”
Khodayari was a fan of Iran’s Esteghlal soccer club. On March 12, she arrived at the Azadi stadium to watch the team play al-Ain, a club from the United Arab Emirates, as part of the Asia World Cup.
Authorities arrested her and sent her to a notoriously squalid prison for women that was once a chicken farm. Khodayari was released two days later but then summoned to a Revolutionary Court in Tehran in September. According to media reports, the hearing was canceled, but when Khodayari went to retrieve her cellphone, which had been confiscated by court authorities, she overheard officials say that she could serve a minimum sentence of six months. It was after overhearing that conversation that she doused herself in gasoline and set herself on fire, reports said.
According to her sister, who spoke to state-run media outlets, Khodayari had bipolar disorder and was under the supervision of a doctor. Her mental health had significantly deteriorated while in detention, her sister said.
Khodayari was taken to a Tehran hospital with severe burns, and she died late Monday.
On Tuesday, Iranians discussing Khodayari on social media used the hashtag “blue girl” for the Esteghlal team colors.
“We are all responsible,” female lawmaker Parvaneh Salahshouri said on Twitter, using the hashtag.