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Iranophobic propaganda factory of fake martyrs: the case of the Blue Girl

In the last two weeks, a heartbreaking story from Iran hit the world's headlines. The storyline goes something like this: a female football fan, nicknamed as the Blue Girl, tried to enter the men-only Tehran's Azadi Stadium in March this year and she was arrested by the security guards only because she was a woman. Six months later, more precisely in early September, she was ordered to attend a court in Tehran and after she found out about the prison sentence, she poured petrol on herself and set herself on fire outside the courthouse. She died in hospital one week later due to the third-degree burns. These reports in the Western media quickly gained a vast readership and triggered numerous reactions. Some compared her to Jan Palach, some wrote to international sports organizations seeking sanctions against Iran, and some went so far as to argue that the case would cause mass unrest or even revolution.

As is almost always the case with Western stories about Iran which target the audience's emotions, by fact-checking the story details and comparing them with the statements of victim's family given to the Persian-language media, it turns out that virtually all of the claims are incorrect, or even contrary. First of all, she was not arrested because she was a woman who wanted to go to the stadium, but because she violently attacked the policemen at the stadium gates, after refusing the security check. According to her sister, a strife erupted when she told the security guards that they shouldn't touch her because she is a girl from a conservative family. It means that the alleged liberal feminist, implied as such by the Western media, in reality was someone completely opposite, a conservative girl from the holy city of Qom. In contrast to her, the Azadi Stadium already saw the female audience and all of them orderly passed the entrance checkpoints. Most important of all, she did not attack the guards due to any sort of political protest, but because she was a mentally ill girl who had a hysterical attack. Unfortunately, she was alone so there was no one to explain her about the stadium rules, or to the guards about her mental health.

Unknowing about her medical record, police placed her in three-day detention, which led to a worsening of her mental condition. Her family came from Qom to Tehran, paid bail and showed documents about her health. When her scheduled trial came six months later, the judge was away so no verdict had been issued. There is no any sentence of six months or two years in prison, as falsely claimed. Whether it's due to a judge's absence, rumors about potential penalties or something else, eventually setting fire to herself outside the building. It had nothing to do with football, politics or verdicts, only her mental disorder and an unfortunate set of circumstances. Her family further noted about her suicide attempt several years ago when she was a university student and was hospitalized for a while, adding that all related medical documents also exist. All these informations were systematically ignored in the Western mass media. Even alleged image of the victim wearing a blue hat, circulated widely on the Internet, is false. It actually shows a trans-gender boy.

Her death is undoubtedly a tragedy and it provoked a number of reactions within Iran, especially among fans of the Esteghlal FC. Some public figures have criticized security guards for treating her as a normal citizen, and some also criticized the Iranian judiciary for the alleged prison sentence, which proved to be only a rumor. Still, these public criticisms have nothing in common with distorted story from the foreign press, based on the misinformation by political activists who recognized the tragedy as the perfect opportunity to spread propaganda and manipulate the emotions of the world public. Their main focus was on sex-segregation in certain football stadiums and they have been seeking to stir an online outcry to call on the world football's governing body to ban Iran from international competitions.

The hypocritical sex segregation debate

Speaking of sex segregation, which is completely irrelevant to this case, it is true that certain sports venues implement a policy of sex separation. Some have exclusive male audiences for men's team matches, others have special sections for both men and women, while third ones are mixed. However, anyone who has visited Iran can testify that the country is far from some kind of segregationist society, since it does not exist in universities, theaters, cinemas, restaurants, urban transport, offices, mosques, holy shrines, etc. Certain football stadiums are rare exceptions, along with prayer halls, schools and public baths.

Furthermore, there are a number of problems in defining "discrimination," whether at Iranian or international level. All those who are holding moral lectures about "discriminated women banned from stadiums" forget or intentionally ignore the fact that, in their own words, there are also "discriminated men banned from stadiums." To be more precise, as there are stadiums for men's matches with a men-only audience, there are also stadiums for women's matches with an exclusive female audience. One example is the Ararat Stadium in Tehran, used by the Iran women's national football team.

Debates over two-way segregation in stadiums are being waged within Iran itself, but foreign individuals and organizations operating under the guise of human rights and equality are always hypocritically invoking one-way segregation, specifically female spectators at men's matches. The reason is clear, the advocacy of this kind fits perfectly into the archaic Orientalist narrative about "oppressed women," long propagated in the West and covered extensively in academic literature. The same one-way argument can be applied, for example, to the male-only schools in Iran, ignoring the fact that there are also female-only schools, or that there are plenty of single-sex schools in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and other countries.

One many say that the focus on female spectators is due to the popularity of men's football, which is partly true. For example, the match between Iran and Belarus at Ararat Stadium in last March was attended by less than one hundred female spectators. Even women's matches in other countries are not better attended, but this tells us about the global discrimination against women's football and sports in general. Advocating alleged equality by seeking mixed audience for single-sex matches is a bit ironic itself, despite the fact that female football players can hardly physically compete with their male counterparts. Similar justification is however difficult to find for sports segregation in numerous international motor racing competitions, which implicitly suggest that women are bad drivers. But this is not the case in Iran, its female racing drivers like Laleh Seddigh and Mitra Fallahpour competed against their male counterparts and won medals, which is a hard-to-find example in most countries of the world.

The only valid argument about sex segregation in football stadiums is the fact that Iran is one of the rare exceptions in a global context. Nevertheless, as in the example of aforementioned female racing drivers, Iran is also a rare exception in various other fields of women's emancipation. For example, Iran has women like Zohreh Sefati in the highest level of clergy, while the vast majority of other countries, including Western ones, have none. There is still no media circus or public debate on the issue. Another example is that despite being 4-5 times less populous, Iran has more female students at technical universities than the five largest EU countries combined, or twice as many as the second-ranked United States. Therefore, if you feel morally superior to give Iran lectures on the topic of women in stadiums, keep in mind that Iran can also do the same, but on much more serious topics. And if you believe that female cheerleaders are a better indicator of women's emancipation than female engineers, then you have a serious problem in understanding gender equality.

The last ones who have a moral right to participate in this public debate are precisely those who were among the first and the most loud about the Blue Girl case, namely counter-revolutionary activists and the Saudi media clique. The former ones because in the pre-revolutionary period only a quarter of Iranian women were literate, and the latter ones because they represent the country with the most rigid sex segregation in the world, present in virtually all public places. This fact did not hamper The Independent, a half Saudi-owned British newspaper, from being among the first to publish a false heartwarming story, based largely on rumors by the apologists of Pahlavi regime.

The propaganda factory of fake martyrs

A particularly intriguing case is the role of the United States and the United Kingdom whose mass media and PR agencies have a long tradition of manufacturing fake martyrs for Iranophobic propaganda purposes. Notable cases include Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, executed in 2005 for allegedly being "gay lovers," Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, allegedly sentenced to death in 2010 because of "her love for another man," Zahra Bahrami, alleged "democracy activist" executed in 2011, and Hashem Shabani, an alleged "poet and human rights campaigner" executed in 2014. In reality, the first two were sentenced for raping a 13-year-old boy, the second one for murdering her husband, the third one for drug trafficking, and the fourth one for Takfri terrorism. These criminals were mispresented as brave individuals who stood for freedom, and the Internet contains tons of heartbreaking reviews, fake biographies and quotes, calls to action, and so on.

All these cases have a lot more in common: they all emerged during the fiercest tensions between Iran and the United States, they all followed the same propaganda modus operandi, and all were promoted by the same media, organizations and individuals. For example, if you intend to learn more about these controversies on the highly popular English Wikipedia, do not expect anything credible in most cases and bear in mind that literally all articles were arranged by the same person, a pro-Israeli activist nicknamed as Plot Spoiler, who got indefinitely banned only since last year after administrators had uncovered that he was paid for contributions. The current version of the Blue Girl article is arranged by a user who openly declares himself as a monarchist and a hater of the Iranian political system. Do not expect much more from Internet search engines because fake news stories from the days of media hypes will appear at the top, while relevant critical reviews and scholarly articles are technically "hidden" for ordinary people.

In all the above cases, a propaganda campaign followed the same order. First, a particular judicial case was selected, to which rumors and false informations were added. Secondly, a distorted version was released in the mass media, causing a moral crusade which involves politicians, organizations, celebrities and others. Everyone is asked for a(n emotional) reaction. Thirdly, after the official Tehran denies false information, they accuse it of hiding facts or seeking excuses. A media hype thus keeps going on, along with demonization in the eyes of the world public. Such repetitive method was also used on the eve of aggression against Iraq, misinformations were repeated and the public debate has been prolonged until the majority of Americans were misled that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction and military invasion was justified. A propaganda campaign sometimes includes a fourth step: when certain trial does not end in line with false sensationalist announcements, they claim that Iran has withdrawn under international pressure. This gives an impetus for a new round of same games, particularly among benevolent but manipulated activist volunteers, who believe that their babbling on social networks has an impact on the Iranian judiciary.

There is no shortage of resources for such games and potential "martyrs," especially pseudofeminist ones, as there are currently 7,440 women in Iranian prisons. It is easy to dig up domestic news, turn numerous stories upside down, and claim that trials are "dubious" or "unfair". Theoretically, it is even more easier to do the same with the United States, considering there are 211,870 women imprisoned in that country or proportionally seven times higher than in Iran, but in practice virtually no one bothers with such facts and all find it quite normal when Americans are holding moral lectures. One may wonder whether it is because of the well-known "credibility" of the US courts, the same ones that seized billions of Iranian assets, delivered a verdict holding Iran responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and ordered the sale of Iranian antique art from American museums. Or perhaps many find the US trustworthy because their official criticism is always confirmed and joined by "eminent" Human Rights Watch?

Human Rights Watch (HRW), as well as similar US-funded organizations allegedly in charge of "promoting human rights," plays an already seen game. Their modus operandi is to act in symbiosis with the mass media and Washington's politics: at the beginning of propaganda campaigns, they back the biased claims and timely participate in provoking mass outrage, but after the media circus passes and its purpose was served, then they publish a more factual review, thus building the reputation of a credible and neutral institution. In this particular case, the HRW's report about the Blue Girl contains false balance, i.e. they do mention her mental illness and certain statements by her sister, but the title and most of the text deals with unfounded criticism, thus serving as a reference for the more aggressive mass media. Later, they can simply deny earlier allegations or the whole story, however, media coverage will then be absent. The most (in)famous example of such modus operandi is the false testimony of a Kuwaiti girl that helped build public support for the First Persian Gulf War. Both Human Rights Watch and their British equivalent Amnesty International initially supported the story of Iraqi tearing Kuwaiti babies from incubators, and issued corrections only after the war. In other words, they fulfilled the task of their governments, and as "truthful organizations that acknowledge their own mistakes" they continued to fulfill the same tasks later.

Even if the Blue Girl was a sane girl and immolated herself in political protest, which is definitely not the case, the United States would be among the last in a position to criticize. In just a few months before the self-immolation of Czech student Jan Palach, a celebrated anti-Soviet dissident who gained huge media coverage in the West, eight US citizens self-immolated themselves in protest against the Vietnam War. The media coverage of these American examples was negligible, as was in cases with ten other US citizens who later set themselves on fire in various political protests. On the other hand, no such case has been recorded in Iran, with the exception of two rumors based on dubious dissident sources.

The only valid criticism of the Iranian authorities over the Blue Girl case is that they treated her as an average sane person in the first three days. The security forces defended themselves that they did not know about her mental condition, further explaining that it was not even possible to know in given circumstances, which can be seen as a valid excuse. Even with regard to the treatment of mental patients, the United States would be the last candidate to sit on a high horse. We do not have to deal with hypothetical questions about what would happen if someone refuses a security check and violently attacks policemen at the US stadium gates, it is enough to recall the empirically confirmed cases of Artogi Groshe, Kevin Thorpe, Ronald Madison and many others. All of them were shot for resisting the police, and the responsible police officers later confronted the with fact that they killed people with mental disabilities, not arrogant criminals.

Exploiting the tragic death of a mentally ill person for political purposes of any kind is disgustingly shameful and below any human level. The same goes for this article, its purpose is not to justify any state policy, security guards or stadium rules, but merely to point out lies, hypocrisy, double standards and mass propaganda. Out of respect for the victim and her family who criticized the intense politicization in the foreign media, the identity of Blue Girl is deliberately not mentioned in the text. It's not hard to notice that these media manipulations emerged in the midst of US-Iranian tensions and warmongering propaganda, orchestrated by the same group of people who called Iranians as "a terrorist nation," sanctioned Iranian humanitarian organizations like Setad, along with child cancer patients and flood victims. They had previously manipulated emotions of the world public with the aim of provoking war with hundreds of thousands dead, and judging by their latest actions, they would be happy to repeat it all. Ultimately, we should remember that one of the basic points of John Bolton's policy towards Iran included "a close cooperation with the media." He may be gone, but his policies and old manipulation methods are still alive.

Ivan Kesic

Ivan Kesić is a Croatia-based freelance contributor and independent geopolitical, military and socio-economic writer. As an open-source data analyst he contributed to various regional outlets and collaborated with several government agencies in previous years. He occasionally writes articles and helps to maintain a neutral point of view in other authors' articles.