In a case drawing criticism from human rights groups, a young Iranian woman who was sentenced to jail for the crime of sneaking into a soccer match has set herself aflame to protest her potential incarceration.
The report comes from Radio Farda, the Persian-language branch of the United States’ Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. Radio Farda, in turn, cites state-run news agency Rokna, which reported the woman set herself on fire outside the main prosecutor’s office in Tehran on Sunday.
“The 29-year-old is suffering from third-degree burns, and currently under life support,” said the CEO and president of Motahari Emergency and Burns hospital in Tehran.
Reports say the incident stems from an arrest earlier this year outside of Azadi Stadium, the largest stadium in the capital of the Islamic republic and home of the Iranian national team.
The U.K. Telegraph said that the woman, known only as Sahar, had disguised herself as a man to gain entry into the event.
A spokesman for Iran’s judiciary said she “had been engaged in a physical confrontation with security forces in February.” Court papers accuse her of “insulting the public by defying the dress code for women.”
Rokna, meanwhile, quoted Sahar’s sister as stating the incident happened in March: “They detained my sister on March 12, 2019, when she tried to enter Azadi Stadium, and watch Tehran’s Esteqlal soccer club home match against the United Arab Emirates’ Al Ain, FC,” she said.
“At the time of the self-immolation, the official in charge of the prosecutor’s office told the girl that she faced a six-month sentence in jail. The girl protested but told that since the judge was on bereavement leave, a court would be held later to hear her protest,” Rokna reported.
“On Monday, September 1, the woman appeared in court for the first session of the trial but the judge was on vacation because of a death in his family and another date was scheduled for the trial,” a spokesman for Iran’s judiciary said.
“But the young woman began to raise objections and after leaving the courthouse, she took the gasoline that she had purchased earlier and poured it on herself and set herself on fire.”
If this wasn’t enough to cause worldwide controversy, the court had been made aware that Sahar has bipolar disorder.
“Judicial authorities had chosen to prosecute the woman despite being able under Articles 80 and 81 of Iran’s Criminal Procedures Regulations to drop the charges due to her mental health condition,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran noted.
“As a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), Iran is also obliged to ‘ensure effective access to justice for persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others.’ But there has been no indication that the victim was given that access.”
Sahar’s sister said that her mental condition only deteriorated during her time in prison.
“After being taken to [Gharchak] Prison in Varamin [city], my sister suffered a lot of mental issues and felt terrified,” she said.
“She was eventually released on bail and when she went to the courthouse to pick up her phone, something happened and she heard she had to stay in prison for six months.”
Sahar’s sister said the only reason the charges weren’t dropped was her attitude toward officials in the prison.
“We had provided all the documents to the court but she was being prosecuted as a healthy person only because she cursed at the guards,” she said.
Sahar’s self-immolation comes less than a month after an eminent photojournalist in Iran was arrested for sneaking into a soccer match dressed as a man.
Photojournalist Forough Alaei was among six women detained by authorities on Aug. 13, Human Rights Watch reported. The Committee to Protect Journalists said she was detained for five days before being released on bail along with the other women.
“Alaei previously documented the activists’ attempts to enter Azadi Stadium to watch soccer games, including by dressing as men, in a series which won a World Press Photo award,” the CPJ noted.
In spite of pressure from FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, women still face jail time for entering soccer matches.
FIFA states in its constitution that discriminating against women “is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion,” according to Radio Farda.
“Iranian women should not be spending a second in prison because authorities accuse them of peacefully attempting to defy a ridiculous ban that denies women and girls equal rights to attend a football match,” Minky Worden, director of global initiatives with Human Rights Watch, said at the time of the detention.
“Iran should immediately and unconditionally release the women and lift the discriminatory ban on women attending sports matches.”
The detention of activists is bad enough. A potential six-month jail sentence for a mentally ill woman under a doctor’s care for bipolar disorder is far worse. Now, Sahar is fighting for her life with third-degree burns — a situation that never should have happened.
Iran remains the only country in the world that disallows women from entering its stadiums under the penalty of law. And yet, this is a story that’s received almost no attention in a press utterly obsessed with the president’s Twitter feed.
This is something that should be front-page news until this pernicious misogyny comes to an end. It’s sometimes difficult to remember just how free we are in this country. We must use that freedom to fight for women like Sahar and Forough Alaei, women whose voices are blotted out by a theocratic despotism we too often turn a blind eye to.
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