Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Afghan women stand in solidarity with Iranians after 'Blue Girl' Sahar Khodayari’s death

Women who protested at Kabul Stadium remember a time their own rights were curtailed

Sahar Khodayari set herself alight after being charged for trying to enter a football stadium. Twitter
Sahar Khodayari set herself alight after being charged for trying to enter a football stadium. Twitter

An Iranian football fan’s defiant act of self-immolation has sparked a movement in neighbouring Afghanistan, where sports stadiums are still recovering from their use as execution sites.

Sahar Khodayari, 29, set herself on fire after being arrested on charges of trying to enter a stadium - a punishable offence for women in Iran – and succumbed to her injuries on September 8.

Following her death, human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among others, have issued strong condemnations of Iran’s sexist policies and asked Fifa, international governing body of football, to take action against the country.

Iran has barred female spectators from football and other stadiums since 1981, with clerics arguing they must be protected from the masculine atmosphere and sight of semi-clad men.

Activists, celebrities and football players from around the world are castigating Iran online over the death of the ‘Blue Girl’, a nickname given to Ms Khodayari in reference to the colours of the team she supported—Esteghlal FC.

However, none have come out in stronger solidarity than women from Iran’s neighbour Afghanistan, perhaps drawing a parallel with their own past. In the late 1990s, Afghan women suffered under the repressive regime of the Taliban, where sports stadiums were converted into a popular venue for public executions.

On September 13, less than a week after Ms Khodayari's death, hundreds of Afghan women attended an Afghan Premier League (APL) football match in Kabul, many of them carrying hand-drawn placard with messages of solidarity for the Blue Girl.

“When something happens to Afghan women, people from around the world stand by our side, so why shouldn’t we stand by the Iranian women who are our neighbours with whom we share a common culture and language,” Mariam Atahi, a women’s rights activist who participated in the campaign at the Kabul Stadium told The National.

“Going to a stadium and watching a football match is not a crime, it is not something bad and neither is it forbidden in Islam. When men can go to a stadium and watch their favourite sport, why can’t the women?” she questioned.

Afghan football player Hajar Abulfazl, although not present at the Kabul match, shares the demonstrators’ sentiment.

“It is very tragic and it is hard for me and other women to see this [treatment of Iranian women] and remain silent,” she said. “As women we know we how hard we have to struggle for our basic rights to live.

Ms Abulfazl urged for international community to take note of Ms Khodayari’s cause.

“We need to come together and support women’s rights all over the world, whether in Iran or Saudi Arabia or in our own Afghanistan,” she said.

For Ms Atahi, who lived in Kabul during the Taliban regime and experienced the clamp-down on her freedoms and rights, the plight of the Blue Girl and Iranian women hits too close to home. “We’ve lived through dark time during the Taliban regime. Women were not allowed to get out of the house, even to go to school,” she said.

“But over the last 18 years Afghan women have come a long way and made significant achievement that we fought for, we struggled for and raised our voices around the world.”

However, as governments, including the Afghan and US administrations, seek to engage the Taliban in a negotiation to end this war, many Afghan women remain concerned over losing their freedoms and reversing gains in the exchange.

Ms Abulfazl, who has played for the Afghan National team and later coached younger women, shares these fears. “Right from the beginning the US talks started with the Taliban, I thought to myself why should we engage with them [Taliban] when we all know who they are and what their beliefs are.”

“If they return [to power], they will find that it is not the same Afghanistan that they ruled 18 years ago,” Ms Abulfazl said, adding that in Afghanistan today, men and women study, work, and socialise together.

“We have women ministers, ambassadors and sports players. Will they accept us?” she asked.

While the last round of talks between the US administration and Taliban ended abruptly earlier this month, there is speculation that negotiations will be revived following the Afghan presidential elections scheduled for September 28.

Ms Atahi hoped that, unlike the talks in the past year that did not include Afghan women, the eventual peace process would consider the “significant dynamic of Afghan women and our achievement of 18 years”.

Supporters of Iranian soccer team Esteghlal wave flags of their favourite team at the Azadi (Freedom) stadium, in Tehran, Iran. AP
Supporters of Iranian soccer team Esteghlal wave flags of their favourite team at the Azadi (Freedom) stadium, in Tehran, Iran. AP

Meanwhile, the Blue Girl protests in Kabul have reasserted the voices of Afghan women within the international community. “We do not want to go back to a time when we weren’t allowed to go to a stadium, or even out of our homes for that matter. Afghan women are raising our voices to preserve our dignity and identity,” Ms Atahi said.

"As Afghan women, we actually have lots of our own problems and challenges, but sisterhood and the fight for women’s rights doesn’t recognise any boundaries. Our advocacy and struggles go beyond our own boundaries,” she said.

The international outcry may lead to changes. Fifa said Sunday it had been "assured" by Iranian authorities that women will be able to attend the October World Cup qualifier in Tehran.

"We need to have women attending – we need to push for that with respect but in a strong and forceful way and we cannot wait anymore," Fifa President Gianni Infantino told a Fifa conference on women's football.

"We have been assured, that as of the next international game of Iran, women will be allowed to enter football stadiums," he said.

Updated: September 23, 2019 12:25 PM

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