In solidarity with the ‘Blue Girl’

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

September 28, 2019 10:07 pm | Updated 10:08 pm IST

An Afghan football fans watching a match between in Kabul in 2017.

An Afghan football fans watching a match between in Kabul in 2017.

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.

Empathy and sisterhood

In Kabul, meanwhile, Khodayari found empathy and sisterhood, as her campaign was received with much enthusiasm at the stadium. Many Afghan men joined the women, amplifying their voices by carrying posters with the words #BlueGirl. For the Afghan women, who have lived through an extremist regime, and still continue to experience discrimination and challenges, the protest represented their own struggles. “We have a common culture and we speak the same language, so why shouldn’t we raise our voice for the women in Iran?” Mariam Atahi, an Afghan women’s rights activist who participated in the demonstration at the stadium, told this writer.

“Going to a stadium and watching a football match is not a crime... [I]t is not banned in Islam either. Islam doesn’t say anywhere that women should not go to the stadium and watch a match,” she asserted, adding that Afghan women were familiar with the struggles of Iranian women. “We had a dark time during the Taliban regime. Women were not allowed to get out of their homes or study or even express themselves,” recalled Ms. Atahi, who lived through the years of the Taliban.

For Ms. Atahi and her compatriots at the stadium, their act of solidarity was a way to reassert their voice in the international community. “Afghan women have an identity, which should be considered during the peace process and reconciliation. At the same time, we will also continue to stand for human rights around the world. We will raise our voices not just for ourselves but also for all women who are denied basic rights,” Ms. Atahi said.

“We have many problems here [in Afghanistan] but it should not matter where one lives and where are we geographically located, everyone has a responsibility to raise their voice for women’s rights.”

Like many women in the country, Ms. Atahi fears a possible return of the Taliban. However, Afghan women remain adamant that they won’t surrender their rights and allow the progress made in the last 18 years to be rolled back. “Over the past 18 years, Afghan women have achieved so much and struggled a lot to get to where we are today. We fought, we advocated for rights and we stood up and now, we are not going back to a time when we were not allowed in the stadiums,” Ms Atahi said. “We won’t give up.”

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul

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