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Pink Card tells the story of Iranian women's fight for freedom, rooted in soccer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For more than 40 years, women could not attend soccer games in Iran. After Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, the Islamic Republic barred women from stadiums. But the ban sparked resistance. Female soccer fans protested at the gates of Iran's national stadium. They clashed with police. They sneaked into games dressed as men. A new podcast from ESPN's "30 For 30" tells the story of this rebellion. It's called "Pink Card." And host and creator Shima Oliaee told me her understanding of how important soccer is to women in Iran started with her mom.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So when I would ask my mom about memories of her childhood in Iran, I would get this kind of broken record answer of, oh, my gosh. We would play soccer. And this one time I was at this party, and my brothers, like, didn't have a goalie. And so I replaced the goalie. And they were like, little Manu (ph) - she just scored a goal. And then I would ask for another story. I said, OK. Do you have another memory of your childhood? And she would say, oh, yes. I was at a wedding, and I was in my party dress. And then, right after the cake, we played soccer. And then I scored this goal, and everyone was happy. And then she just could not stop talking about her joy of soccer, which, for me, as her daughter, was so frustrating. I was like, can you tell me any other variation of this story of, like, anything you experienced at that time?

KELLY: But this feels important to how you came to making a podcast about women in soccer and protesting 'cause it feels important for people to understand - Americans might not - just how big a deal soccer is in Iran. There's one other...

OLIAEE: Yeah.

KELLY: There's a bit - I think it's in your third episode - and we hear - I'll play it. This is Sara (ph) describing Tehran shutting down for a big match. This is 1997.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "PINK CARD")

SARA: You know, Tehran is a big city. You never see the city quiet. There was no one on the street.

KELLY: No one on the street 'cause they're all home watching the game. So describe what it meant for women who were in Iran to be told, no, you can't go.

OLIAEE: Iran at that time in that particular episode was coming back from the Iran-Iraq War. It had been devastated by the revolution. It had been devastated by a regime change and had been devastated by this war. And women had by this time been stripped of all their rights. And what happens with soccer - soccer was a big part of modernizing Iran. It was thought of as one of the things that could bring Iran forward into the 20th century and lead other Western countries to become an imperial kind of nation and compete with the global heavyweights. And women's rights basically improved right alongside the spread of soccer in the country.

But soccer survived. And the reason it is so beloved in Iran is the reason it's probably beloved across the globe, which is it feels like the great equalizer of a sport. Like, you don't need a lot of money to become very good at it. You can play in dirt. You can use all kind of balls. You can make balls out of papier-mache, which I interviewed someone who had done that. You know, you can make makeshift goals. And so everyone on the streets - like, I interviewed so many Iranians, and they would describe everyday life in Iran. It's just every corner - people are playing soccer.

KELLY: It's so interesting because it's, as often happens with sports, it's about the sport. It's about, yeah, I want to go see the big game that everybody's going to be talking about. But it's also about power and about politics. And in this case, when you talk women, it's about control.

OLIAEE: Yes. The Islam regime didn't even want soccer to be this powerful in the country, but they could not get rid of it (laughter) because people would be so upset. So women, because they were banned from the stadium in 1981, it's one of the many public places they cannot enter, including buses, you know, parks, the ocean. There's places in the ocean where only men can go. The stadium is a way to have pride in your country even after so much hardship. And by not allowing women to experience that in a live form, it was a cruel kind of punishment towards them. At that time, women suppression and absence became the symbol that the Islamic regime had power and was doing well.

KELLY: Shima, how did you go about reporting this? Could the women you wanted to speak with speak freely with you?

OLIAEE: Sara that you just played a clip from, from Episode 3 - that is not her real name. She's actually still in Iran. There were times when I could not reach Sara for days at a time, and I thought something had happened to her. It's once you are known as someone who opposes the regime, you're never really safe again. It's so hard to trust anyone, including me. It was a total new level of journalism for me. Like, I just - I'd never reported on a population of people that could be killed at any time and who were still living in the trauma they were describing.

KELLY: And you're - the podcast captures the struggle, the resistance. It also - you also capture moments of joy. And I want to let people hear a little...

OLIAEE: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Bit of that. There's this moment - some of the activists you were following are actually about to get into a match. This is Iran, about to play Korea 2009.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "PINK CARD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: That's them in the car.

OLIAEE: (Laughter).

KELLY: And then you capture when they actually get in. They're there. They get to see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "PINK CARD")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You always watch TV. But when you enter the actual place, it's totally different - the vibe, the sound. It's like from two dimension to three dimension.

KELLY: Shima, give us the context to understand that moment.

OLIAEE: Yes. So there's this ragtag group of women who are named the White Scarves because - I don't - I kind of don't want to give it away why they are named that, but you find out in Episode 3. And they make it their mission to infiltrate the national stadium, which has been renamed Azadi, meaning freedom, Stadium, as they are told they are no longer allowed inside. So this group of women come up with, like, plots and schemes in order to infiltrate Azadi Stadium. And through an extraordinary chain of just, like, happenstance and luck, somehow they end up being police escorted into the stadium and through the three security gates. And they watched this game, and they recorded all of it.

What's so exciting as an audio producer is to hear the sounds of girls inside Iran. One of the things growing up as an Iranian American that I saw was I thought the sound of Iran was men screaming in the streets. You know, the hostage crisis had been seared in my brain. And so that was what I thought the sound of Iran was. And hearing from the Iranian girls - one of my dreams with this series was I wanted to replace our ideas of what Iran sounds like with the sounds of Iranian women and girls singing, laughing, protesting, giggling, like, rebelling. And that's exactly what I got because the White Scarves shared.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "PINK CARD")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Non-English language).

KELLY: That is Shima Oliaee, creator and host of the new podcast "Pink Card." Thank you very much.

OLIAEE: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Sarah Handel
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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