For many Afghan women, Khodayari’s act of protest symbolised their own struggle for equality.

The stadium in Kabul was packed, as thousands of football fans gathered to watch the latest edition of the Afghanistan Premier League (APL), which kicked off earlier this month. Not too long ago, this stadium was used as a venue for public executions, including that of women, by the Taliban, during their regime in the late 1990s.

However, since the fall of the extremist group in 2001, the city’s stadiums have come a long way, now reclaimed by the Afghan youth, including women, who attend as well as take part in several sports, on grounds earlier forbidden to them. This sentiment has reverberated across the stadium every year during the APL and other competitions that witness massive crowds. However, this season, the acclamations by women fans carried a stronger message — solidarity with their Iranian counterparts, who are still prohibited from entering a stadium. Several Afghan women, attending the APL on September 13, raised hand-drawn placards expressing support for the actions of Sahar Khodayari, a young Iranian woman football fan who had died after immolating herself just days earlier.

Khodayari, who is now being referred to as the ‘Blue Girl’, a nickname given to her in reference to the jersey colour of the team she supported — Esteghlal FC — set herself on fire in protest against arrest for trying to enter a stadium. Ironically, the word esteghlal in Persian translates to ‘independence’ and the stadium that she tried to enter was called Azadi (freedom) Stadium. Khodayari’s death gave rise to a stronger call from the international community against Iran’s discriminatory policies, including from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. “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. Her only crime was being a woman in a country where women face discrimination that is entrenched in law and plays out in the most horrific ways imaginable in every area of their lives, even sports,” Philip Luther, director at Amnesty International, said in a statement, urging FIFA, and the Asian Football Confederation to take action.

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