‘I can’t make sense of a world in which women are not allowed to attend football games’
Public speaker and sports activist Shireen Ahmed on Iran’s ban on female fans, FIFA’s ignorance and where the positive change could come from
The only crime she committed was the fact she loved football and wanted to attend a match of her favourite team. Dressed as a man back in March, Iranian Sahar Khodayari [aged 29] attempted to enter a stadium in her country, where women have been banned from attending sports stadiums shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Khodayari was stopped from entering when the stadium's security guards discovered she was a woman. Months later she appeared in a Teheran court facing a jail sentence for breaching the rules. Shocked and devastated, Khodayari, who people started calling ‘Blue Girl’ [because of the blue colour her favourite team Esteghlal play in], set herself on fire in front of the court and was later rushed to a local hospital with severe burns on 90 percent of her body and damage to her lungs. She died on September 9. Can Khodayari’s tragic story become the catalyst for a much needed change? Award-winning sports activist Shireen Ahmed offers her view…
Shireen, can you make sense of a world in which women have been banned from attending football matches since 1979? And now it’s 2019…
No, I can't. The reasons for the ban have been insufficient and unnecessary. Excluding women from society is a form of violence.
Do you think the tragic death of Sahar Khodayari, who people from around the world are calling ‘Blue Girl’, is the ultimate sacrifice that could trigger the change within the Iranian society? Can things really change for the better?
There is a misconception that there hasn't been activism and work within Iran. This is not true. Open Stadiums has been working hard for almost 15 years. Outside support is crucial but change will come not only from inside Iran, but with powerful federations and groups demanding change as well. I do believe that this can and should change. Belief that something is unjust and should change, is a very powerful motivator.
Iran legend Ali Karimi said on Instagram he would be boycotting the local league matches and urged his fellow countrymen to follow suit and turn their back on Iranian football as a protest against the ban. Is this the right way to challenge and shake up the status quo?
There is no correct 'way' to beat this. But Karimi and [current Iran captain] Masoud Shojaei speaking out is extremely helpful and draws attention to an issue that much of the football world did not know about. It also shows that men can support women in fighting against injustice, and that men should also act.
How much of what happened is FIFA’s fault in your opinion?
Both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation have been aware of this issue for years and have repeatedly failed to be effective in forcing a change. We are beyond the point of ‘discussion’ and having meetings. I wrote more about this topic here.
Italian side AS Roma were the first to try to raise awareness changing their club crest’s colours from red to blue in honour of the Blue Girl. How can the football world and its global audience contribute to helping all the female football fans - in Iran, in particular, as well as in other parts of the world where they’re denied equality?
One of the best ways to help, is to amplify the issue and raise awareness. I have been covering this story since 2013 and the biggest challenge is not apathy, it is making sure that people are aware. Many in the football world were simply horrified to find out what is happening. Football clubs who show solidarity including Roma AS and even FC Barcelona have been critical in sharing the message. Also supporting key organisations like Open Stadiums is the most important. They are at the helm and can lead the charge with allies.
As a sports activist focusing on Muslim women in sports, you’re dealing with cases of discrimination on a daily basis. In the era of Brexit and Donald Trump is the situation worsening or there’s light at the end of the tunnel after all?
There is far more good in the world than bad - particularly in the world of sport. If I didn't believe this, I wouldn't be able to do what I do. Sports is tool of empowerment for women, and a vehicle for change. I have, and will always believe in that.
You had experienced discrimination yourself when you tried to play football in hijab in Canada but you were not allowed to. Was that one of the reasons that make you become an outspoken advocate for Muslim women’s rights in sport?
Yes, my own history shaped what I do. If my writing, research and voice helps even one more person, then my struggle was worth it. The main reason I advocate for Muslim women is because the coverage of their issues is so poorly done. So, I began writing about it. To this day, I get journalists who have no idea about context and are hardly nuanced. There needs to be diversification in sports media, it is completely dominated by men. And having an authentic voice certainly helps.
In order for her story to never be forgotten – how can we preserve Sahar’s legacy?
We must continue to hear the voices of the women in Iran and not take over with our own perspectives. Amplifying Open Stadiums is critical. And ensuring that updates and news are shared in an impactful manner. We must continue to put pressure on major football federations and make it known that this discrimination must end. Sahar's death is a reminder of how dangerous toxic patriarchy in sports can be. This issue can not be forgotten or brushed aside. It must be resolved quickly.
Let imagine just for a second you were to become the president of FIFA – what would be the first change you would like to implement?
I would add women and create an even demographic to every level of the executive, the administrative and the organization verticals.