"We move through the world like
shooting stars across the sky.
Splitting through the darkness
Putting the light into their eyes."
A soft cool breeze gently blew across Sahar’s face. Spring was in the air! Nowruz, the Persian New Year, was just nine days away and the celebration was about to begin. However today, Sahar had far more important things on her mind. Today was Tuesday, March 12, 2019 and Sahar was about to attend her first soccer match in Tehran! Her favorite soccer team, Esteghlal was playing United Arab Emirates and she couldn’t wait to stand up with thousands of other young fans and loudly scream and cheer them on to victory.
Sahar stopped a few hundred feet from the entrance to Azadi Stadium and watched a huge crowd of people hurrying inside anxious to get to their seats. She took a nervous deep breath and then adjusted the blue wig covering the top of her head. Removing a mirror from the pocket of her gray overcoat, she carefully examined her face. Did she really look like a man? Had she removed all traces of make-up on her face? Would she get through security?
Quickly shoving the mirror back into the pocket of her overcoat, Sahar took another deep breath. Beads of sweat coming from the wig trickled down her face. She nervously wiped the sweat away and continued walking, trying to blend in with the crowd in front of her. She had never done anything like this before. She had heard the stories of many women, desperate to see a soccer watch, and dressing up like a man to sneak inside.
Sahar gazed up at the sign hanging above the entrance that read, Azadi Stadium. She chuckled out loud to herself,
“Azadi Stadium? What kind of name for a stadium is that? Azadi in Persian means freedom, but that’s a lie! There is no freedom for women in this stadium. They are forbidden!”
Ever since the Revolution in 1979, when Iran was transformed from a secular state, into an Islamic Republic, men and women became segregated classes of people. Women could no longer hold government jobs and were forced to be veiled when going out publicly. Men became the dominant class and women were reduced to second class citizens. Even though it was not officially written into code, women could no longer attend stadium events alongside of men because of the discriminatory teachings of Sharia Law. The government now ruled their lives from cradle to grave and human rights and freedom no longer existed!
Yet that didn’t stop Sahar. She was not afraid of what the government could do to her. Today she was proudly wearing blue, the official team color and she was determined to be the loudest cheering fan in the whole stadium! Attending a soccer game in Tehran was the absolute dream of her life and nothing could stop her today.
A smile beamed out across her face as she neared the entrance. In her mind’s eye, she visualized herself standing way atop the stadium gazing down at the playing field, surrounded by thousands of fans, all of them men, cheering loudly into the air as Esteghlal scored their first goal of the game. Chills and goosebumps broke out all over Sahar’s body as she saw herself having the greatest time of her life.
Pulling her cell phone out of her pocket to show the security guard her ticket, Sahar once again took a deep breath and relaxed arriving at the entrance. She presented her cell phone to the ticket patron when suddenly two security officers surrounded her. One of them reached on top of her head with his hand and pulled off her blue wig. Sahar dropped her cell phone in shock. Her heart began racing in her chest.
“You are not a man!” the guard screamed back at Sahar. “You are an impostor. You are under arrest!”
In an instant, Sahar’s world had been shattered. Her dream of attending her first ever soccer game was no longer a “child-like” reality, but had now been transformed into a horrible nightmare!
Monday, September 2, had finally arrived. Sahar had dreaded this day for months but realized she had to keep her court date or face more jail time. After finding out she had been arrested, Sahar’s parents were extremely angry and reluctantly paid the expensive bail for her freedom. They were loyalists to the government and warned her to fully comply with the law or risk staying in jail forever. They refused to bail her out for a second time.
Sahar entered the court building and walked up to the front desk. A lady dressed in a full chador that covered her body and hair greeted her, asking what her reason for coming was. When Sahar explained that she had been summoned to court, the lady politely informed her that the judge had postponed the case for family reasons and she was scheduled to return another day. The woman looked closely at her paperwork and then looked intently into her eyes.
“You realize mam, that your case is very serious. You are charged with going out publicly without a hijab and impersonating a man to attend a soccer game. If you are convicted you will have to spend six months in jail and maybe even two years!”
The thought of being imprisoned for six months and caged like an animal was horrifying to Sahar. The woman’s warning cut through her soul like the blade of a sharp knife. Sahar grabbed her chest in fear as anxiety pains shot through her. She had heard the horror stories of women being raped and sexually assaulted by prison guards. She was well aware of the deplorable prison conditions where there was no medical assistance and no access to a lawyer for many months. Sahar understood how women were treated like animals and sexual objects, and the thought of even spending one day in prison for the crime of being a woman in Iran was absolutely repulsive and unacceptable to her.
Racing out the front door in fear, Sahar knew exactly what she had to do. There was no turning back. Living as a woman in Iran was no longer an option for her. Today would be her last day of living under fear and oppression. Her friends had urged her to just hang in there a little longer. Freedom and democracy would soon come to Iran. The daily protests in the streets and all over the cities were having a drastic effect on the government, her friends claimed. The government cannot last much longer under the pressure of sanctions and the violence in the streets.
However, Sahar had lost all hope. Today had been the last crushing blow of despair that she could endure. She raced around the corner and arrived at a gas station. Purchasing a small plastic container, she filled it full to the top with gasoline. The owner gave her a concerned look and decided instead not to interfere into her personal business.
Sahar rounded the corner onto a busy side street filled with people walking to their early morning jobs. The loud noise of honking horns in the traffic-filled streets and the screaming voices of angry motorists didn’t bother her like before. She had become deaf to the chaotic sounds of Tehran. The world had suddenly become dead to her. She had no feelings anymore. She was now totally numb and indifferent to life itself.
Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, Sahar took an angry deep breath. Tears streamed down her face. Her hand trembled at she unscrewed the cap off of the plastic container of gasoline. She closed her eyes and at once she saw herself inside of Azadi Stadium surrounded by thousands of happy, jubilant fans cheering on Esteghlal. For a brief moment, Sahar managed to smile. Right now, at this moment, she was living the dream of a lifetime visualizing the thrill of attending her first soccer game. Yet the thrill was short lived. It was all just a cruel nightmare that had died six months ago. There was nothing left to live for now. All hope had died on the day that she was arrested. Sahar knew being a woman in Iran was a hopeless and cruel existence and she didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. Despair had sucked every last bit of life from out of her soul.
Sahar raised the plastic container over her head and began saturating her body with gasoline. A few men on the street stopped and gazed with concern at her. As she lit the match, a young woman raced toward her realizing what she was about to do.
“Stop! Stop! Please……”
But before the young woman could finish her sentence, Sahar touched her clothes with the match and was immediately engulfed in flames. Sahar had never in her life felt anything like this before! The scorching hot burning pain paralyzed her entire body. She could barely utter a word. The pain and suffering was indescribable and yet she didn’t regret what she had done for a second. A young man raced toward her, but Sahar immediately warned him in a shrieking voice.
“Leave me alone. I want to die! Leave me alone!”
Sahar was rushed to a hospital in Tehran. Her whole body was covered with third degree burns. Seven days later on September 10, 2019, “Blue girl” died from her severe injuries.
The tragic news of Sahar’s death was heard all over the soccer world. There was outrage and sadness. Her favorite team, Esteghlal held a moment of silence before their training session, in memory and tribute to “Blue Girl,” affectionately called, because she dressed herself in the team colors. The Iranian soccer team issued a public statement that was recorded on video:
“The tragic death of our beloved child, Ms. Sahar Khodayari, has caused much sadness and regret for Esteghlal. We offer our condolences to you and your relatives.”
Thousands of sad supporters gathered on the very spot where Sahar committed self-immolation and held a candlelight vigil in prayer. There were hundreds of flowers laid at the sight and one hand written note declared, “You won’t be forgotten Blue Girl.”
The FIFA (International governing body for football) outraged at Sahar’s senseless death publicly called on Iranian authorities to “ensure the freedom and safety of any women engaged in the legitimate fight to end the stadium ban for women in Iran.”
Amnesty International loudly spoke out against the unjust tragic death of Sahar condemning the oppressive rules against women in Iran.
“Her only crime was being a woman in a country where women face discrimination that is entrenched in laws and plays out in the most horrific ways imaginable in every area of their lives, even in sports!”
Thousands of Iranians took to Twitter tweeting their outrage with the hashtag #BlueGirl. One such outrage tweet came from Magdalena Erickson, a soccer player for Chelsea’s women’s team in London:
“Today our hearts bleed blue for Sahar Khodayari. Now it’s time for everyone in Iran to be allowed to attend every football match together! RIP Blue Girl.”
World renowned human rights activist, Emadi Baghi, also took to Twitter in support of Sahar declaring:
“Tehran’s Azadi Stadium should be renamed, “Sahar-e-Azadi.”
For forty years, we’ve called that stadium Azadi. Azadi means freedom, but there is nothing in common between the stadium and the real meaning of that word!”
On October 10, 2019, caving into the international outrage and pressure from the FIFA, the government of Iran allowed women to purchase 3,500 tickets and attend the world cup final against Cambodia. It was the first time in 40 years that women were allowed inside. However, this was nothing more than a publicity stunt, damage control for the rebuilding of a public image, giving the watching world the impression that Iran was finally respecting women, when in reality there was nothing in writing to lift the ban. It was all about image and yet for a few hours, it appeared that some measure of justice was finally given to the memory of Sahar.
Rival Sons is a very popular American rock band that wrote a powerful song entitled, “Shooting stars.” The chorus of this song has a haunting and incredible melody, that although not intended to be a tribute to Sahar, yet is describes something very ominous of her courage and personality.
“We move through the world like shooting stars across the sky. Splitting through the darkness. Putting the light into their eyes.”
In just a few verses, I can see the face of Sahar and everything that she stood for. She lived a very brief life and died at the young age of 29. She was like a shooting star. Here for just a few moments in time, but those few moments forever changed the world. With courage and conviction, she set herself on fire and became a blazing torch for freedom. She bravely stood up to the darkness of oppression and because of that, the world paused from their chaotic life and for a few brief moments listened to her message. Sahar was crying out in desperation, engulfed in the agonizing flames, putting the light into their eyes. In the final moments of her life, Blue Girl screamed loudly in her suffering and set the world on fire. She shouted freedom from a busy street in the middle of Tehran to tell the world that there is something terribly wrong and cruel going on in Iran.
We must never forget this courageous woman who refused to keep silent about the gender apartheid in Iran. It was not just about a soccer game. It was about life itself! Blue Girl was a shooting star and in an agonizing instant of flames engulfing her body, the blazing light of truth shined out from her whole being in protest against the cruel and unjust discrimination of Iranian women.