This is the story of two Iranian women, and of the struggle of many millions more.
In March 2019, 29-year-old Sahar Khodayari went to a football match. Her side, Esteghal, were playing the UAE’s Al Ain in the Asian Champions League, in what was their first home game of the season.
Officially, Tehran’s hulking Azadi Stadium holds 78,000 supporters, though internationals can see over 100,000 cram onto the concrete terraces.
Female fans are not allowed to attend.
Sahar was not dissuaded. Prevented from watching their teams since the conservative cleric Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, small groups of women disguise themselves as men to sneak into the stadium.
Guided by make-up tutorials on YouTube, Sahar attempted to enter the Azadi. But her identity was discovered by security guards and she was detained by the police. They took her to the infamous Gharchak, a disused chicken farm turned prison, where she was held for over a week in what were said to be unhygienic and overcrowded conditions.
On September 2, Sahar heard she would face charges over the 2019 incident. Though no written law bars women from stadiums, she was charged with failing to respect Islamic hijab regulations. The sentence was a maximum of two years in prison.
Sahar left the court and set herself on fire on the judiciary steps. She died in hospital one week later, having suffered burns to 90 per cent of her body. An Iranian government official later denied that she was to face charges.
Her death caused outcry in Iran. She was immediately dubbed ‘the blue girl’, after Esteghal’s club colours. Shima Babaei, a dissident who fled to Belgium, remembers Esteghal players writing her name on their kit, fans singing her name in the stands. “But gradually, that incident was forgotten,” Babaei tells The Athletic.
On September 13 this year, Mahsa Amini emerged from a subway station. She was spotted immediately by the ‘morality police’, a force employed by the state to enforce Islamic dress code. There has been an escalation in their activity since the election of the conservative prime minister Ebrahim Raisi last year.
Mahsa was wearing a hijab but, according to the morality police, it was being improperly worn. They threw her in a van, taking her to the Vozara detention centre. Her brother, arrested with her, was told she would be free to leave an hour later after undergoing a mandatory ‘briefing class’.