On 9 September 2019, Sahar Khodayari (later nicknamed the Blue Girl in a nod to the colors of her favorite soccer team) was unexpectedly hurled into the limelight. Sahar died in a hospital after setting herself on fire outside a courthouse in Tehran. For activists opposing Iran’s infamous ban on women entering soccer stadiums, on the grounds that it is religiously unacceptable and renders them vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse, she was a victim of state policy. Six months prior, in March 2019, Sahar, dressed as a man, had attempted to enter Azadi Stadium to watch a match of Asian Football Confederation Champions League between the United Arab Emirates team al-Ain and her favorite Iranian team Esteghlal (meaning independence) at Azadi (meaning freedom). She was (reportedly) identified, detained, and subsequently released—but was told she had to appear in court at a later date. No one knows what precisely transpired between her initial detention in March and her death in September. In fact, there was no media attention until after a picture of her charred body went viral. What brought her to the courthouse that Monday in September is not clear either.
Almost immediately after the news of her death broke, the gruesome details made international headlines, circulating ad nauseam on Twitter and other social media platforms. Iranian celebrities issued statements expressing sympathy and regret. These include film director Jafar Panahi, several Iranian actors and actresses, and the captain of Iran’s national soccer team, Masoud Shojaei. A few members of the Iranian parliament, mainly from reformist factions, joined such voices. Eventually, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the vice-president for women and family affairs, asked the judiciary to investigate Khodayari’s tragic death.
A disparate list of international characters voicing pity and concern soon developed. One set came from international sports icons. These include FIFA’s 2019 Best Women Player Megan Rapinoe and former English professional soccer player Gary Lineker. Soccer clubs like Chelsea, Barcelona, and AS Roma called for action in Sahar’s memory. In addition, members of the exiled pre-1979 Iranian royal family, Reza and Farah Pahlavi, issued statements. So too did Amnesty International and the US State Department.
Sahar’s icon was vague and open enough that it could be claimed by radically different constituencies. Her charred body was both a divider, reaffirming established lines of fissures in Iranian politics, and a bridge, allowing various actors inside and beyond Iran’s borders to come together, however temporarily. Our intention here is not to reproduce existing debates pertaining to Sahar’s death: whether or not it was premeditated or impulsive; whether or not she had a history of suicide attempts; if her relationship with her family was ridden with tensions; if it was an act of defiance or defeat. Instead, we are interested in how Sahar’s death was mobilized and repurposed. Our aim is to situate this death in broader political currents.
Before the recent reversal, Iranian women had long been banned—and still are—from spectatorship in a number of sports. Taking our cue from Sahar’s case and its connection to the ban, we locate Sahar at the epicenter of what we call a "politics of pity." We argue that the mediatization of Sahar’s death, its transformation into a spectacle, had the effect of bringing the spectator closer to the tragic death of the Blue Girl. What is more, this closeness, engaged the affective potential of the spectator/onlooker, mobilizing it towards action by feminist activists and oppositional groups abroad with the aim of delegitimizing the Iranian state. Our intent, in what follows, is to unpack aspects of the logic that underpins a “politics of pity”—a logic that, we argue, is based on abstraction, generalization and, ultimately, a process of multiple erasures and forgotten histories, individual and collective alike.
The Making of An Icon: The Blue Girl
Gathering information on who Sahar was not as straightforward as one might imagine. Accounts of why she was in the court on the fateful day of her self-immolation diverge considerably. According to some, Sahar went to the courthouse to retrieve her confiscated mobile phone. According to others, she was summoned to appear in court on 2 September. When she arrived, she was allegedly told she could expect up to six months in prison. The charges she was facing are also unclear. Most media reports and social media accounts focus on charges for ”appearing in public without a hijab,” while others add "resisting arrest" or "insulting officials." News outlets failed to agree on other details such as her education, with the Guardian suggesting she had a degree in computer science while the Daily Mail awarded her two bachelor degrees in computing and languages. The cacophony surrounding the circumstances of her arrest and death was only reinforced by late and reluctant statements from Iranian authorities. A hastily produced report on the notorious 8.30 News, a Channel Two news program of the Islamic Republic Broadcasting, followed. It developed a conspiracy theory about the events.
As news of Sahar’s death spread, the profile of the ubiquitous Blue Girl remained unclear. She was a faceless individual. Different photographs circulated. Some likenesses were reclaimed by their actual owners, others were not, until, finally, the media put a face to her identity. Sahar Khodayari was a single, unemployed, twenty-nine-year-old woman, originally from a provincial town in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari, one of the least developed provinces in southwestern Iran. She held a bachelor’s degree and lived with her working-class family in Qom, one of the holy cities in Iran. To this information, her family eventually added a few more pieces. They drew attention to her mental health problems, specifically a bipolar disorder for which she had ceased taking medication.
Although an excess of information eventually became available, the history of Sahar as it was told by the main framing actors—feminist activists and diverse oppositional groups out of Iran, as well as state-sanctioned actors—is abstract and decontextualized. She is robbed of her personal history. Her life is reduced to her frustration with the stadium ban and, ultimately, depending on the narrator, her "revolt against a cruel state," to her "becoming an instrument for exerting pressure on Iran," or to "a lost battle against bipolar disorder." From the little that we now know about the Blue Girl, we can piece together a much more complex and multidimensional history. Accordingly, we must situate Sahar at the intersection of multiple axes of inequality and grievances, the understanding of which requires a deeper grasp of the shifting socio-political landscape in Iran. Iranian society has featured a rise the average age of marriage, yet where not being married at her age still constitutes a stigma. Unemployment rates are high, particularly for women coming from peripheral provinces permeated by social conservatism. All these dynamics while confronting mental health problems in the context of a restrictive family. Sahar found herself caught in a web of societal and familial constraints and deprivations.
The terrified or defiant soccer fan she became that Monday in September was the effect of an assemblage of differences, of manifold hierarchies and axes of domination. Post-humous representations of Sahar have largely suppressed and dissimulated these assemblages. The state’s moral sanctions and constraints are coupled with and reinforced by family structures. Sahar’s father’s statements shed light: “It was wrong of her to go to the stadium . . . It is not appropriate for women to go to stadiums.” “It is a crime,” he added, situating her actions outside established morality and legality. “I never stopped her from watching soccer on television at home.”
For most of her time in the limelight, Sahar’s story was replete with conflicting, contradictory, and missing elements. But that did not matter. Her tragic, hard-to-discern, silhouette, stuck between private, public, and state-sanctioned patriarchy, her aspirations and anxieties, her last thoughts as she set herself on fire did not matter. None of that mattered as long as she embodied a single, fixed, one-dimensional story, uncritically picked up and repeated by media outlets.
The generalizations and dissimulations of other facets of Sahar’s life and personality are part and parcel of a reductionist framing not uncommon in social movement activism. They are also not uncommon in situations of political polarization. These include Iranian politics or public spaces sustained through social media platforms. Nevertheless, we must remain vigilant. Reducing complex human beings or situations to a single narrative can enable those who have the power over-representation to secure their knowledge claims by suppressing the voices of those who do not. A death reduced to a #hashtag, a frail body instrumentalized in the battle fought between different actors inside and outside of Iran, can be fertile ground for a movement. It also has the potential to erase individual and collective histories of suffering and struggle, to render the gains of Iran’s women in the pursuit of attaining citizenship and recognition a shallow, pyrrhic victory.
Mobilizing Pity: Rage Against the State
Despite the confused accounts of her death, a simple, coherent, powerful, single-cause story about Sahar became dominant. The powerful and tragic composite image made of her charred body and her smiling face, her piercing gaze as if inviting a dialogue with the viewer, underpinned dominant narratives around her death. The materiality of Sahar’s charred body on a hospital bed sets in motion a "politics of pity." Such politics mobilize sympathy toward a sense of injustice, a victim and a perpetrator, a visual invocation of responsibility on the part of the onlooker to protect and rescue the endangered female body. Sahar’s case (just as other cases before her) has become a banner for a broader cause, and a potent one at that given her horrific death: the protection of "all" Iranian women from a cruel, masculinist state. Women are pitted against the state as a unified coherent entity, such that any possibility of engagement with the state or working through it is shut out. And that is exactly the intent: to make it seem as if change is only possible through pressure from outside, as Masih Alinejad, the US-based founder of the #WhiteWednesdays and an employee of the Voice of America, claims.
Sahar’s image was encoded with the aid of statements aiming to turn pity for her into a more "active" emotion, that of rage against the state. Rage, in turn, was conducive to a binary definition of the situation, an "us against them" mentality. It privileged a moral hierarchy among different discursive positions, legitimizing those who justify foreign and international pressure and intervention, or the boycotting of Iranian sports in the absence of other effective measures, and delegitimizing those who (seek to) take more complex positions and articulate a critique of over-reliance on external pressure.
The construction of icons and the appropriation of women’s dead bodies in the Iranian context are not without precedent. The most notable case is Neda Agha Soltan, a twenty-six-year-old philosophy student who was shot dead during the 2009 election protests. Like Sahar’s death, the video footage of Neda’s last moments contributed to the polarization of Iran’s body politic and met state allegations that, what the opposition called a "death on stage," was actually "a staged death." Similar ambiguities surrounded Agha Soltan’s identity, and competing narratives were deployed around the circumstances of her death. In both cases, the dead bodies of women and the pity they inspired were mobilized by groups that rallied against a state with a history of restrictive policies towards women. Meanwhile, the state itself tried to ascribe to their bodies alternate meanings or to divest them of any meaning altogether.
The transformation of passive feelings of sorrow and pity into a call to action is by no means an Iranian novelty. In December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire, became a symbol for an unprecedented mobilization of rage. The initial pity at the news of his death helped unleash rage against a host of different autocratic regimes in disparate Arab countries. It was allegedly a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider so-called “Arab Spring”—a term that, however evocative, has the potential of dissimulating the specificities and social dynamics of each of the uprisings as well as the complex interconnections between them. There are some similarities between the deaths of the Iranian “girl” and the Tunisian “man.” Yet the dominant accounts of Bouazizi’s self-immolation mainly revolved around a lifetime of economic deprivation and, ultimately, his inability to feed his family of seven. Not only had he failed as a “breadwinner,” he had also been subjected to humiliation by a female municipal official and her aides who confiscated his goods. It is this difference that highlights the gendered dimension of the politics of pity; pity is mobilized in gendered ways.
As suggested above, the majority of reactions to such hyper-mediatized deaths evince a transformative move from pity to rage. In the case of Sahar, this rage was directed against the state that insisted on the ban and provided fertile ground for a call to action. In a statement on the occasion of the Iranian national team victory in their 10 September qualifier against Hong Kong, Shojaei, a vocal advocate of lifting the stadium ban, described their success as "the most bitter and saddest win of the national team" and added a call-to-action against the state: "Shame on me for not having been able to do anything and shame on those who took away the most obvious right from Sahar and all Sahars."
Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director Philip Luther also intoned a call to action against the Iranian state: "What happened to Sahar Khodayari is heart-breaking and exposes the impact of the Iranian authorities’ appalling contempt for women’s rights in the country . . . Amnesty International believes that Sahar Khodayari would still be alive if it were not for this draconian ban and the subsequent trauma of her arrest, detention and prosecution for attempting to circumvent it. Her death must not be in vain.” The call for decisive action against the state is most exemplified in an interview given by Alinejad, who suggested that a fist was necessary for the state to open the stadium door to women, an assertion reiterated by the Trump administration’s US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook: ”This is another example where pressure works . . . with this regime . . . We saw that with FIFA, and we believe that our approach [a campaign of ’maximum pressure’ on Iran] is also going to help us accomplish our objectives.”
Sahar Khodayari sat on the margins of these competitions for power. Like Mohamed Bouazizi and Neda Agha Soltan, Sahar could not speak with her own voice. Her intentions, even her dead body, were appropriated and reassigned meaning by various actors. In their attempt to attain hegemony, the social forces who rallied around Sahar’s "cause" adopted an idiom often associated with the state. It was replete with references to martyrdom and its recourse to a mythology of resistance and struggle. Sahar and Neda become important not because of the lives they lived but as silent corpses repurposed as willing martyrs in the interests of challenging the Islamic Republic—just as the Islamic Republic itself appropriated the deaths of revolutionaries as well as combatants and civilians in the eight-year Iraq war.
Erasures: Forty Years at the Stadium Gates
As the dust settled, Iran’s government started taking steps towards satisfying demands by FIFA and other international organizations. On 10 October, on the occasion of the World Cup qualifying match between Iran and Cambodia, the doors of Azadi stadium opened for women (although it is uncertain if this is a temporary or partial move), marking a historical achievement. The jubilant faces of women soccer fans prominently featured on various media outlets, this happy face of Iran, is cause for celebration. Yet, it is also a reminder of the unnecessarily long journey that women have taken to go through these doors. As we celebrate this "iconic" moment, we should remember that marking moments as "iconic" is a process that involves the erasure of moments past, a process of muting them, and relegating them to insignificance. It is exactly this past that we wish to address below. If not inside, women have steadfastly stood at the stadium gates for several decades and the current jubilation has, at best, sidelined this fact.
Some have been quick to applaud FIFA for its firm stance on women’s access to stadiums in Iran and used it as an example of successful foreign pressure. This despite a forty-year-long history of ambivalence, or even of inactivity and indifference on the part of the organization and other international actors who now claim a share of the victory. FIFA, itself marred by corruption scandals and steeped in notoriety for the shady deals of its officials with government entities and sports organizations, has used the opportunity afforded to it to expunge accusations of past indifference and masculinist bias levelled against it. On 19 September, FIFA experts visited Tehran to discuss measures designed to allow women in Iran to attend soccer matches and issued a statement reiterating its position: "women have to be allowed into soccer stadiums in Iran. For all soccer matches." The allocation of a mere 3,500 out of a total of approximately 80,000 seats for female spectators could be claimed as a rare "win" for FIFA and a rare "win" for the Rouhani administration.
Yet, for the most part, the international organization had pursued a policy of compromise and turned a blind eye to the marginalization of women in Iranian sports. Verbal bravado had never been matched with decisive action, despite the fact that its own rules state that discrimination on grounds of gender is punishable, either by the expulsion or suspension of a federation. In the past, the organization matched its cosmetic support for women’s access to soccer stadiums with an attitude of indifference towards their cause. Instead of facilitating women’s soccer, it had banned the women’s team of Iran for wearing uniforms designed to "protect their modesty," precluding their participation in international competitions and thus punishing them for the biases of a state that restricts and polices their bodies.
The open gates of the stadium already set a valuable precedent. That Iranian women managed to overcome such a symbolic as well as material obstacle cannot be underestimated. That said, this latest episode in women’s quest for equity and recognition should be read alongside past struggles as part of a lineage of collective action. Almost two decades before Blue Girl become an icon of defiance, a group of activists stood at the stadium gates demanding a place for women. During the final years of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist administration (1997–2005), the scattered objections of a few feminist journalists gave rise to a small but organized campaign known as the White Scarf Girls. This campaign marked the first grassroots stance against the stadium ban. Their inaugural concerted action took place before the 2005 World Cup qualifying match with Bahrain during which the White Scarf Girls demanded “half of freedom for women.” Their persistent presence at the gates and their resolution to make their voice heard led then-president Khatami to instruct the officials of Azadi Stadium to let them in during the second half of the match. As far as the broader public was concerned, the White Scarf Girls ushered into the domain of visibility a hitherto unimportant issue.
Their success was admittedly partial. Despite the visibility of their action, they only managed to mobilize a crowd of around sixty activists. Their broader strategy involved engaging with the state and attempting to ally themselves with the reformist faction within it, which had, at times, harbored links to various activists, civil society organizations and groups in order to reflect and amplify their demands. This strategy alluded to the White Scarf Girls’ belief that genuine change had to involve a movement in dialogue, and not just confrontation with the state, in the first instance. At the same time, the White Scarf Girls addressed both FIFA and the AFC, imploring them to use their influence to put an end to gender discrimination. In an open letter, they requested that international sport organizations step in to terminate “gender discrimination” and to “protect Iranian women’s rights.” Their pleas went unheeded.
The White Scarf Girls, and subsequent campaigns such as @openstadiums, along with individual initiatives such as a 240,000-signature petition to FIFA started by Maryam Shojaei, were instrumental in highlighting the absurdity of the ban and women’s exclusion from the public domain. But perhaps a more important reason to not forget their mobilization and other even less successful examples can be found in their failure to consolidate and expand their momentary breakthrough. In their inability to build a movement with a mass following, one that cuts across class and regional divides, we see echoes of the precarious and concessional opening of the gates of Azadi stadium following Sahar’s death.
We must historicize the interaction between women and the state regarding the ban, as well as the broader societal and cultural barriers, intrastate divides and international dynamics that have contributed to the longevity of the exclusion of women from sports spectatorship over the long forty years that Iranian women have been left out in the cold. Without underestimating the symbolic role of Sahar’s death, any sustainable and meaningful advance in the struggle of women’s rights cannot be premised on the radiance of accidental or unwitting heroines, or on the benevolence of international patrons. We must root current struggles in a genealogy of resistance, an invaluable history of successes–and of precautionary failures.