Pink Card Episode 1

Red Girl Growing up Iranian American, Shima Oliaee found her mother didn’t talk much about where she came from. Watching soccer, though, was a portal to Iran, a place that was in large part a mystery. Shima delves into the stories she didn’t hear growing up: Iran’s mandated modernization and how soccer played a role, the women-led 1979 revolution, and her parents’ mistaken-identity love story. Shima and her mom meet Zeinab Sahafy, a young Iranian woman and soccer fan, who has been named an enemy of the state.


Episode 1: Red Girl

[Home video
Young Shima Oliaee: *singing* You’re on hidden camera.]
[Home video
Young Shima Oliaee: Mom! Kick the ball.]

SHIMA OLIAEE: I grew up playing soccer. My mom hated when I called it that.

[Home video
Mom: I can teach you lots of football!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: She called it football.

[Home video
Young Shima Oliaee: Football? It’s soccer.
Mom: It’s Persian football!
Young Shima Oliaee: Ready? I love you! From Christmas, my daddy bought me my soccer ball and my pump!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: It’s Christmas day. I’m 9. And I can’t get the ball past my mother. She does not care that I’m a kid.

[Home video
Young Shima Oliaee: Again, again!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: My mother played on club teams in Reno, Nevada for the past forty years.

[Home video
Young Shima Oliaee: Dad, is that mom?]

SHIMA OLIAEE: I remember her coming home after matches when I was in middle school.

[Home video
Mom: [farsi]]

SHIMA OLIAEE: Telling us in Farsi that she scored a goal.

[Home video
Neighbor: Say hi to grandma, Shima!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: In my family, our love for soccer was constant and clear. But, living in America, and being from Iran?

[Home video
Neighbor: What a pretty cake!

Young Shima Oliaee: It’s Cinderella!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: That was more complicated.

We always sang two birthday songs. One in English.

And one in Farsi. I often felt like that, split in two. At school I was ashamed of telling people where my family was from. It’s not like I was fully aware of what was happening in the world, what the Gulf War was, the Iranian hostage crisis. But growing up in the 90s in Reno, Nevada – I knew being from the Middle East wasn’t something to be excited about.

Announcer: Line up changes tonight for the US. Five new starters-]

SHIMA OLIAEE: But I remember when Iran played the US in the 1998 World Cup.

Suddenly, for a few hours my family was transported. The hyphen in our identity dropped. We were fully Iranian again.

Announcer: Ninety minutes of soccer history tonight in Lyon!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: That day, I was clear what side I was on.
In our tiny living room, a portal had been opened. And, there were no rules. When a goal was scored, whoever had the remote would flip to the Spanish channel to capture the energy of each goal.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Pillows would be thrown.

[Home video

SHIMA OLIAEE: My brother would scream “Shima!”

[Home video
KID BROTHER: Shimaaa!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: We would tackle each other.

[Home video
KID SHIMA OLIAEE: Milad’s so crazy huh! And he’s rude!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: We’d both be sent for periods of time to cool off in our rooms – but even my parents would be cussing and shouting and cheering. Soccer was our greatest sense of national pride – our way to beat the big guy, the US – who was so intrinsic to our exile.

SHIMA OLIAEE: And then we went back to reality. I was an Iranian-American girl again.

SHIMA OLIAEE: When I think about all of the keepsakes my mother could have taken with her from Iran and passed down to me: The language, the history, the stories of her life… why was soccer most important to her? That question has led me to some of the most dedicated soccer fans in the world – all Iranian women. And we’re going to start with the story of one girl…

SHIMA OLIAEE: Hi, Zeinab! [laughs]

MOM: [farsi]

SHIMA OLIAEE: That’s my mom! Can you say your name?

ZEINAB SAHAFY: Zeinab Sahafy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: This tape is from the summer of 2020. I’m on Skype with Zeinab Sahafy, and my mom is translating.

MOM: Zeinab-jan, put your phone on airplane mode.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Or, trying to.

MOM: Nah di-geh! That’s kind of englisi! [laughs]


MOM: [farsi] Shima! It’s working.

SHIMA OLIAEE: We’re go – we’re going! We’re good!

MOM: I’m going to pour myself some coffee. I’m so happy.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Wait? Okay, let me give you one minute.

MOM: No, I’m good. Go ahead. I can multitask.


MOM: K, I’m ready to go!

SHIMA OLIAEE: Zeinab, my mom, and I are thousands of miles away from one another, the first time we meet. I’m in New York, my mom is in Reno, and Zeinab is in Turkey. It’s 7 o’clock at night where she is.

SHIMA OLIAEE: On my video screen, I can see Zeinab sitting on the floor, leaning against a large white wall. Over her head hangs a fluorescent light. She’s wearing bright red lipstick and a bright red soccer jersey, the color of her favorite team.

ZEINAB SAHAFY [farsi]: Persepolis, jan.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Persepolis.
Zeinab has several piercings across her lips. The right side of her head is shaved, but the rest of her hair is so long it falls down past her knees.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Zeinab tells me she grew up in a religious family. They didn’t own a TV, so she would go over to her grandmother’s house to watch games. One day, one of her uncles asks her if she wants to go see the players in person…

SHIMA OLIAEE: your mother’s brother?


MOM: Yes!

SHIMA OLIAEE: They wouldn’t be going inside the stadium to watch a game, though. In 1981, long before Zeinab was born, women and girls were banned from watching soccer games at stadiums in Iran.

SHIMA OLIAEE: So her uncle would drive her to greet the national team at the airport. And they’d ride alongside their bus – all the way to the national stadium, waving at the players and screaming out their window.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She tells me that at 12 years old, she stood at the gate, watching the men go in. She saw the excitement on all the boys’ faces. Painted bright colors and radiating happiness.

SHIMA OLIAEE: At that moment, Zeinab knew that following the players to the stadium entrance was not enough. For the next game, she would be watching from inside the stadium.

SHIMA OLIAEE: It was that desire…to see a game up close, in person…that changed her life –

MOM: ok! [farsi – says “speak speak”]

ZEINAB SAHAFY: [farsi, referring to her little brother]

SHIMA OLIAEE: And the lives of so many other girls. Today, Zeinab lives in exile. She’s recently been joined by her mom, her stepdad –

ZEINAB’S LITTLE BROTHER: [speaking farsi to Zeinab]

SHIMA OLIAEE: And her little brother.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Zeinab’s dream as a kid was to be a tattoo artist. These days, when she’s hopeful, it’s to be a singer. But right now, Zeinab’s life is on hold. The Iranian government has called her an enemy of the state.

SHIMA OLIAEE: At this point in the threeway
Zeinab lights up a cigarette. She looks tired. She is only 22.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Zeinab, if you went back to Iran now, what would happen to you?


MOM: Yeah, she says they’ll probably hang her.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The exhaustion, the exile, the government threats.
All of this… for wanting to watch soccer.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I’m Shima Oliaee, from Shirazad Productions. From 30 for 30 Podcasts, this is Pink Card: Episode One. “Red Girl.”

SHIMA OLIAEE: Modern soccer was imported into Iran 100 years ago. The game arrived through a port called…

News Broadcaster: Abadan is a teaming place where a quarter of a million people live dedicated to one single proposition, the refining of 25 million tons of oil every year.]

SHIMA OLIAEE: The British had set up a colony in Abadan in the early 1900s. They made a deal with the Iranian government but it wasn’t really a deal. Iran’s corrupt elite got a small amount of bribe money and the ability to remain in power… and the UK received almost total control of Iran’s abundant wealth and natural resources.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Later, the Brits would be pushed out, but soccer would stay. And its popularity across Iran,the Middle East, and the world would only grow. As of today, 211 affiliated associations are members of the multi-billion dollar institution that is FIFA. FIFA estimates that more than 5 billion people watch the World Cup. That’s more than all the living, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus combined. And in 2022, for the first time ever in its history, the World Cup is taking place in the Middle East.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In Qatar. But, 40 years ago, Iran looked set to host the first World Cup in the region. At its national stadium. When it was built in the early 70s, that stadium was the largest on the planet. It was surrounded by a rowing river, indoor volleyball courts, and an Olympic size swimming pool.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The stands held 120 thousand people. It was called Ariyamehr Stadium and got the nickname bee swarm, because the stadium’s design amplifies sound like a swarm of bees.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The stadium was built by the Shah, who had been the reigning dictator of Iran for 30 years. And the stadium was a perfect symbol for his vision of Iran on the global stage – modern, lavish, and imperial. Frank Sinatra hosted a concert there in 1975.
If you can imagine, at that time, the stands were filled with women, and one of the songs he sang was The Lady is a Tramp.

Frank Sinatra: This is –
it’s my kind of town. Hey!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: Sinatra’s presence highlighted the growing shift away from the old customs of Iran. And soccer playing, at the time, was seen as part of the country’s quote – unquote modernization, right alongside women’s rights. The Shah’s love-hate relationship with the West would become clearer as his reign continued.

[CBC The Last Estate
Broadcaster: The Western Countries are just not used to thinking of Iran as a major world power.
SHAH: You’re right. But they will have to cope with this development soon.]

SHIMA OLIAEE: But it was confusing.

SHIMA OLIAEE: The Shah made guest appearances at Disneyland, riding the matterhorn with his wife. He imported the sewing machine and other Western domestic devices. He broadcasted American TV programs like Bewitched and country westerns all across Iran.

SHIMA OLIAEE: But as the Shah grew with age — he realized that these old oil contracts with western counties were asymmetrical and unfair. In the early 1970s, because of his policies to increase oil revenue, Iran became economically very powerful… And so he became less diplomatic, started, essentially standing up to the outside forces that had always tried to have a piece of Iran.

Mike Wallace: The brown eyed peoples are teaching the blue-eyed peoples something.
SHAH: The blue eyed people have to wake up.
Mike Wallace: Wake up to?
SHAH: From the torpor in which they put themselves by taking maybe too many sleeping pills.]

SHIMA OLIAEE: The Shah had great ambitions for Iran but under a dictator, the people still suffered. His secret police detained, tortured, or murdered those who might threaten his rule, including his own citizens.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Forces inside and outside of Iran collided. Iranian citizens young and old rose up and forced the Shah to flee. Women stood side by side with the men facing the military’s tanks. Today we call it the 79 Revolution. It happened just three years after that big Sinatra concert.

News Broadcaster: Everyday now the demonstrations and arrests go on. Rumors in Tehran say people are being armed -]

SHIMA OLIAEE: It exploded and the country turned upside down.
The Islamic clergy saw a moment to take advantage of an empty ruling throne.
They jumped in and usurped power.

Frank Sinatra: I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die – my my!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: At that time, my mother was a freshman in college in Iran. She was one of the teens on the frontlines of the revolution protesting for change in her miniskirt.

SHIMA OLIAEE: When her university shut down and the national army switched allegiance to the clergy, my mom’s family put her on a flight out of the country. She left –

MOM: January 16, 1979. The same day the Shah also left Iran.

SHIMA OLIAEE: She arrived in Reno, Nevada, the only city where she knew anyone in America.

SHIMA OLIAEE: When she went to register for her university classes –

MOM: I saw this guy with a beige kind of puffer jacket, and some slippers, who totally looked American. Huge afro hair, and it was kind of blondish, so he didn’t look like typical Persians with the dark hair.

SHIMA OLIAEE: My parents fell in love with each other in college, for their Americanness.

MOM: Daddy watched lots of Clint Eastwood movies, shows like The Good, the Bad and Ugly, and he thought he’d come here and he’d have a horse.

SHIMA OLIAEE: (laughing) He thought he’d be a cowboy?

MOM: Yes, yes!

SHIMA OLIAEE: My dad told me he fell for my mom because she reminded him of Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, which he had watched as a kid in Iran.

[I Dream of Jeannie
Barbara Eden: [farsi]]

SHIMA OLIAEE: Eden actually speaks Farsi in the pilot episode.

[I Dream of Jeannie
Astronaut: Genie, I wish you could speak english.]

SHIMA OLIAEE: Until the American astronaut makes his first wish –

[I Dream of Jeannie
Barbara Eden: I must find a way to please the master.
Astronaut: You spoke English! That’s all I had to do was say I wish!]

SHIMA OLIAEE: My parents came into America thinking the west loved them back… but it didn’t take long for them to realize this love was unrequited…

News Broadcaster: The special report that we planned to bring you tonight was about domestic politics, but we think the crisis in Iran is more urgent right now than the campaign here at home…]

SHIMA OLIAEE: There was the hostage crisis, of course…

News Broadcaster: There are several hundred young people, mainly students at Tehran University have taken over the embassy. All the Americans have been hostages ever since. ]

SHIMA OLIAEE: But even beyond that, most of the Western media about the Middle East was so hateful, that being from Iran became a point of shame. One of the top grossing films of my childhood was True Lies, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. I remember watching it with my Grandma who was visiting at the time – and getting excruciatingly embarrassed as the film dragged on. My parents did their best to block what was happening in their country from their minds and from me. They were even somewhat relieved when upon entering grade school – I lost my ability to speak Farsi

SHIMA OLIAEE: Just like Barbara Eden in I Dream of Jeannie.
Which is why my mom is translating for me now.

MOM: Shima! It’s almost three hours. How much do I get paid? [farsi]


SHIMA OLIAEE: As I’ve reported this story I mostly want to understand why Zeinab and my mother – both now exiles – held onto memories of soccer as if it were their homeland itself.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Zeinab says there is always hope in soccer.


SHIMA OLIAEE: Even in the weakest moments, there is always that sliver of hope and possibility –


SHIMA OLIAEE: That we could win the match.


SHIMA OLIAEE: And this has kept the love of soccer alive in her to this day.


SHIMA OLIAEE: There are times when we feel like the game is over. But in fact, it is just getting started.

SHIMA OLIAEE: In this series we are going to meet three generations of Iranian women who’ve fought millimeter by millimeter for every bit of freedom unfolding in Iran today. Over forty years ago these women were banned from stadiums in Iran. Banned from standing side by side as equal Iranians. Banned from the joy, the exhilaration, the love in watching a game. This is the story of how the women took their stadiums back.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Next episode I’m going to take you inside Iran –

MEHRANGIZ: I was running because I was afraid that something happen, I could die, this was my fear.

SHIMA OLIAEE: I’ll show you the diabolical way the women who led the revolution were forced into submission overnight.

MEHRANGIZ: I was laughing. My daughter was laughing. We couldn’t understand that oh, this is message!

SHIMA OLiAEE: What is the meaning of that?

AZAR: The joy was forbidden, basically. That is how they control you.

SHIMA OLIAEE: Pink Card was created and hosted by me, Shima Oliaee. Audio mixing and original music is by Ramtin Arablouei. Editing by Sayre Quevedo. Nesa Azakhizadeh wrote our theme song.

Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, and me, Shima Oliaee, are executive producers.

MAHNOUSH: Did you learn it from someone? Did you?

SHIMA: You’re doing English.

MAHNOUSH: Oh sorry! [farsi]

SHIMA OLIAEE: Thank you to my awesome mom for translating. We had additional help from Diba Motasham. Our production coordinator is Marisa Bravo. Thank you to Nina Ansary, Maryam Shojaei, Minky Worden, Hadi Gaemi, Ramin Golbang, Moya Dodd, Houchang Chehabi, Glorivette Somoza, Malinda Romero, Jasmin Ramsey, and everyone at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.

SHIMA OLIAEE: For 30 for 30 Podcasts, Marsha Cooke is executive producer. Eve Troeh is Senior Editorial Producer. Cath Sankey is line producer and Gus Navarro is associate producer. Licensing support from Jennifer Thorpe and Director of Development is Adam Neuhaus.


Creator, Host, and Executive Producer: Shima Oliaee
Editor: Sayre Quevedo
Audio Mixing and Music: Ramtin Arablouei
Production Coordinator: Marisa Bravo
Theme Music: Nesa Azakhizadeh
Series Art: Forouzan Safari
Fact Checking: Diba Motasham
Archival producers: Meghan Coyle and Matt Day.

Executive Producers: Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird

For 30 for 30 Podcasts
Executive Producers: Marsha Cooke and Brian Lockhart
Senior Editorial Producer: Eve Troeh
Line Producer: Cath Sankey
Associate Producer: Gus Navarro
Licensing Support: Jennifer Thorpe
Senior Director of Development: Adam Neuhaus
Fact Checking: Andrew Distler
Production Management: Tom Picard, Maria Delgado and Jennifer Thorpe
Development Team: Adam Neuhaus and Tara Nodolny
Production Team: Marquis Daisy, Gentry Kirby, Diamante McKelvie, Isabella Seman, and Anthony Salas.

Special thanks to Julia Lowrie Henderson and Trevor Gill.

Thank you to Nina Ansary, Maryam Shojaei, Minky Worden, Hadi Gaemi, Ramin Golbang, Moya Dodd, Sarah Shahi, and everyone at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.