After the tragic death of Sahar Khodayari–an Iranian female football fan who set herself on fire following her arrest for attempting to enter a stadium– the activist group Let Women In launched a campaign to lobby FIFA to take concrete actions against this state-wide gender segregation.
On the eve of the first FIFA match (where 3,500 women were allowed to attend Iran’s 2022 World Cup qualifier against Cambodia at Tehran’s Azadi Stadium), Let Women In released a call on twitter to remember the “thousands of women could not reserve seats of a stadium which remained almost 80% empty, and hundreds of these women protested outside the stadium.” We spoke to campaign co-founder Mahya Ostovar in the days leading up to the FIFA ruling, and prior to the confirmation of Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe‘s return to the UK. We stand in solidarity with Mahya and her colleagues, and with all women in Iran tirelessly campaigning for a better future. We hope that this interview will go some way to turning the focus back on the work that remains to be done (both in Iran and internationally) to elevate voices that have been too long consigned to silence.
We are dedicating this piece to the memory of Sahar Khodavari who should be still here to read this, and to Nazanin and Gabriella Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who we hope one day will be able to.
What inspired you personally to launch this campaign? Can you tell us a little about your background?
Mahya: I have self-identified as a feminist since I can remember. Women’s right have always been my main concern. The fact that I am coming from a country where gender discrimination exists in its most violent and visible form has been certainly the main reason behind this interest. I have done activist work back in Iran a bit. Also, as a researcher I chose the topic of my research related to women rights campaigns. I know Iran’s context, I am familiar with the feelings of rage and hopelessness that Iranian women experience on the daily basis. And this lived experience, the experience of being a women and living in Iran for 25 years has been my main motivations for activism in this area.
My friends in the campaign and I focused on the stadium ban because we believe this is the issue for which activism outside Iran can be very influential and game changing. And we believe this moment is the best time to do so, since the international community and media are sensitive and FIFA is under the pressure to take action. Today, after Sahar’s tragedy nobody has any doubt that this should be a priority.
Why do you think campaigns like Let her in and White Wednesday hold such potent symbolism in Iran , and why is important out readers be aware of them?
Mahya: The stadium ban and the compulsory hijab are symbols of oppression. They are symbols of an ideology wanting to exclude women from public space. This is what the Islamic revolution has tried to do for over 40 years now. Women have always resisted and these campaigns are only the recent efforts in the domain. Being able to enter the stadium is a symbolic fight for lots of Iranian activists. It is a symbol of fighting against gender discrimination and women’s exclusion. It is a demand to make women and their bodies present and visible in the space that is defined as “masculine” and is reserved only for men.
In recent years, activists have tried to increase international awareness around the issue. This awareness is important and can be affective in some cases such as the case of the stadium ban. International awareness and public sensitivity around this issue can be affective since there is an international institution governing Football that can be pressured and that can pressure Iran to open the stadium doors to women. Moreover, this international awareness which can lead to an international solidarity and ‘sisterhood’ can boost Iranian women’s moral. What most of the recent campaigns are trying to do is to portray this image and echo the voice of Iranian women, so that people around the world can have a sense of who they are and what is happening to them.
Our campaign in particular aims to increase international awareness through getting media coverage and as a result pressuring FIFA to act. And we believe this is the affective approach toward this issue.
Stories like Sahar’s– and the ongoing case concerning Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who is currently being unlawfully detained in Evin prison– spark huge feelings of distress and hopelessness for so many of us. What are the best ways to lobby the Iranian government and show solidarity from afar?
To be honest, I think that feeling of hopelessness and distress is a true feeling, this is how we should feel in those cases and hearing such news. These people are paying such a high cost for their basic rights. I have felt this way for so long and so much reading and hearing the news about arrests, prison sentences, and deaths. The only way my friends and I in this campaign have found to make this feeling more influential is activism. It is not easy.
We are dealing with a government for whom the life of its citizens is the least valuable thing. But that means we only have each other and we should stay and fight together. What government wishes to happen is that we get numbed and get used to these horrifying news, to forget those who have fought and have paid for this fight with their lives. The way to resist them is to remember them, to remember and repeat their names, to not forget Sahar Khodayari so soon and to be reminded of her wish and her protest every time we watch a football match.
One of the great Iranian authors, Houshang Golshiri, once said in the funeral of his friend who got killed in the Chain Murders of Iran around 20 years ago: “They have fallen so much mourning and death news on us that we don’t have time to mourn and cry anymore”. While that is true, I think that is what ‘they’ want. So, we have to keep those memories alive. We have to remember them.
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