The Mannequins This episode starts with two questions: If women equally led the 1979 revolution, why were their rights stripped away first? How does this happen to an emboldened part of the population? At first, the women fight back, chanting “Azadi! Azadi!” [translation: “Freedom! Freedom!”] in the streets until the clerics back down. But in a story told by legendary writer and activist Mehrangiz Kar, women’s rights erode one by one – leading us to the nationwide ban on women at stadiums. This is when Iran’s national soccer stadium becomes a battleground.
Episode 2: The Mannequins
SHIMA OLIAEE: Today in Iran when you enter any shop or place of business, at the front entrance, you might see a picture of an oyster. Below the image reads:
VOICEOVER: [farsi translation]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Women are the pearl, the veil is the shell. Your veil will protect you.
When you walk the streets of Iran, graffiti’d in red on the city’s walls, you might see a famous Islamic phrase from the first Imam of Shiite Islam. It reads:
VOICEOVER: [farsi translation]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Women are like basil leaves. You need to protect them!
The Islamic regime in Iran today has made women symbols of purity, delicacy, and fragility. These symbols communicate, women need protection, because women are fundamentally weak.
These messages are omnipresent, and so they’re hard to interrupt, to challenge.
SHIMA OLIAEE: How do you fight a picture of an oyster, or a wall of graffiti? These symbols create a new reality, subliminally. One where gender apartheid is treated as if it were normal, where women are second class citizens – and it’s all under the guise of men’s benevolence and protection. Segregation then seems natural, even beneficial.
SHIMA OLIAEE: To understand the battle over Iran’s soccer stadiums, it’s crucial to recognize that the battle of women’s rights in Iran –
Is a battle of symbols.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I’m Shima Oliaee from Shirazad Productions. And from 30 for 30 Podcasts this is Pink Card, Episode 2 – The Mannequins.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I want to make sure this is ok.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: I should tell you I need some coffee and some water.
SHIMA OLIAEE: During this?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Uh huh.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh shoot.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: You can order, you can order coffee.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Room service!
SHIMA OLIAEE: I met the Iranian writer and activist Mehrangiz Kar in my hotel room in the winter of 2021 in Washington, DC.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: You are Shima, yeah?
SHIMA OLIAEE: Yes [laughs] Yes, I’m Shima.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: You are Shima.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I know. I’m not a good Persian.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: No, you are a good Persian, you are!
SHIMA OLIAEE: My first order of business was getting some hot coffee for my guest.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I got it!
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Oh, good!
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Thank you!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Do you have your coffee black?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yes! I love it.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mehrangiz lives alone. She is a decade older than my mother.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Now I am 77.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Wow.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: [laughs] Okay, a little older than you, probably one year. [laughs and sighs]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mehrangiz Kar is an Iranian legend. She famously wrote for Zanan Magazine, at the time the country’s most popular and influential women’s publication. She dissected Iran’s judicial process and excavated Islamic texts to argue for women’s independence.. Mehrangiz was arrested and sent to prison for “waging propaganda against the Islamic regime.” When she was released from prison, she found her way to the U.S. and has never returned to Iran
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mehrangiz grew up in the same place as Zeinab – the young soccer fan we met in the last episode – a city called Ahvaz. It’s known as the city of bridges. Mehrangiz remembers it as peaceful – this was the 1960s. She had an older brother who taught her political philosophy. She loved reading books, swimming, riding roller coasters, and shopping for hats. She loved going to school most of all.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Everything in the school was very modern. And our dressing was very beautiful. Our hair was very simple style.
SHIMA OLIAEE: She showed me a photo of herself from this time. In it, she wears a long-sleeve floral print minidress, with big earrings and a beehive with bangs. During that time, many girls and women in Iran wore their hair in the style of a bob. They donned bell bottoms, lots of pastel skirts, short shorts, cleavage and pumps. Mehrangiz moved to the capital Tehran – at 18. She studied politics and began law school at Tehran University.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: And Tehran University was amazing. The atmosphere was two gender. They were studying together in the classroom, outside classroom, in cafeteria. And our professors, all the time they were saying, you are future governor in this country. You are the future membership of parliament. You are going to be high position in political jobs!
We were getting ready for that!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Did you know what was coming?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: No.
News Broadcaster: A number of people were trampled in the crowd. Others were struck by cars and motorbikes as people tried to keep up with the procession.
The crowds grew even larger.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: In 1979, the year of the revolution, Mehrangiz was 35 years old. She was a law student and also a journalist, so every day, she was reporting from the streets. Everywhere she turned was packed with protestors, young people shouted death to the dictator, and it looked as though Iran was going to establish a new democracy. Then the Shah fled.
News Broadcaster: The king of Kings leaves the peacock throne in Iran
By his departure today, he is almost certainly brought to an end, the two and a half thousand year history of the Persian Iranian monarchy.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The Shah fled the country, same day as my mom
Mehrangiz stayed and witnessed it all. And she did her best to write down and publish everything she saw.
News Broadcaster: The fifty thousand volunteer marshalls along the route were no match for the hundreds of thousands of Khomeini followers in the streets of Tehran. ]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The Ayatollah Khomeini was a leader in the Islamic clergy, living in Paris in the 70s after the Shah kicked him out of Iran. But Khomeini had support from the US and the UK. They thought he’d be amenable to their demands. And on February 1st, with their support, Khomeini was flown into Iran to take power.
SHIMA OLIAEE: March 8th – International women’s day – was supposed to be a celebration for the ending of a dictatorship. But the day before, women who were government officials, nurses,scientists,– any woman with a public-facing job – received notice that she would need to wear the hijab in order to go to work.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Immediately they understood that it is not advised, it is order.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mehrangiz arrived at Tehran’s judiciary building where she heard there was a demonstration happening, led by women.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: I was there.
SHIMA OLIAEE: What was that like?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: It was like a kind of revolution – against some part of revolution.
SHIMA OLIAEE: After fighting so hard for more freedom in their country, the women were shocked to find that they were the first population to have their freedom restricted.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: That is the reason women became so angry.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: People they were coming, coming and building was full, and the street – street was full of women who were saying no.
SHIMA OLIAEE: What was supposed to be a women’s celebration, instead became a protest over the new hijab mandates.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: After two or three weeks, immediately you can understand that this revolution is happening against you.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: It is a very big shock. They could not believe that!
SHIMA OLIAEE: As snow fell from the sky, tens of thousands of veiled and unveiled women marched side by side, through the streets of Tehran. Their fists in the air, shouting that they would not go back in time.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: It was the first time that women, they could understand that this revolution could be against them, more than against Shah. [laughter] you know?
SHIMA OLIAEE: The women’s chant – AZADI AZADI” shouting for freedom – echoed through the streets, as men jeered at them, chased them into alleyways and exposed themselves. But the women would not back down.
CBC BROADCASTER: It’s clear that efforts to establish a permanent Islamic Republic have run into trouble on several fronts. And one of those is the women’s rights movement.
IRANIAN WOMAN: We were for Khomeini but now we are for freedom!
CBC BROADCASTER: Today’s demonstrations brought to the surface Iran’s simmering post revolutionary tensions.]
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Men, who were follower of Khomeini, they were saying you are bitch, you are – something against our mothers – we say [farsi].
SHIMA OLIAEE: Some women were physically attacked. Some had acid thrown in their faces.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: I was running because I was afraid that something happen. I was very, very careful that not arrested by them. I could die. This was my fear…
SHIMA OLIAEE: At the end of the protests, the clerics retracted their statement regarding mandatory hijab.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The clerics called a meeting and broadcast on television that it was a misunderstanding.
SHIMA OLIAEE: And so the women quieted, triumphant.
And then one morning Mehrengiz is out shopping with her daughter when she notices something strange. The mannequins…
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the summer of ‘79 — in the weeks following the women’s protests — she saw several mannequins lined up against a shop wall for inspection…
In an essay she published years later, she described exactly what she saw.
ESSAY: I witnessed with my own eyes, armed officials –
Entering a clothes shop with their guns.
They pointed to the naked legs of a female mannequin and stared into the frightened face of the shop owner.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Tehran, Iran’s capital, was once called the fashion capital of the Middle East. Thousands of clothing shops displaying the hottest Parisienne trends lined the streets. The mannequins in the shop windows had long colorful hair, short skirts, eyelashes and made up faces.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But now, every other day an officer from a newly organized section of police, “the komiteh” – or the morality police – showed up at a shopkeeper’s window, pointed his gun at a mannequin and asked, “Where is her veil?”
MEHRANGIZ KAR: I was laughing! My daughter was laughing when we were walking. We couldn’t understand it. Oh, this is a message. Why we are laughing at it? Very, very, very hard message to women. Bad message, full of dangerous message! This is your future.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The shopkeepers took fabric and wrapped it around the mannequins’ fake hair.This happened to thousands of mannequins in thousands of shops throughout the city.The police would not leave a shop, until they had approved the uniform.
ESSAY: They were already veiled, but this wasn’t enough.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They then asked why an inch of hair could still be seen through the veil? The shopkeepers fixed the veils to cover the full head of the mannequins. The police approved, but returned again the next day.
ESSAY: Their blushing cheeks, their adorned eyelashes remained visible, but the authorities could no longer tolerate these attractive faces.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The police pointed to the rouge of the mannequins’ lipstick. So the shopkeepers erased the color from the mannequins’ faces. Expressions were removed completely. Mehrangiz was watching, observing. When the police came back and complained about the mannequins’ nail polish –
MEHRANGIZ KAR: They took the mannequins to storage, and shwssst, they cut wrists [laughter] They cut it!
SHIMA OLIAEE: No eyebrows, no noses, no mouths, no hands.
ESSAY: After the hair was lost, their spongy breasts were slashed from their bodies. Instead, the owners installed two little coils on the empty spots so that the feminine gender might modestly be suggested beneath the ample Islamic garments.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They replaced the mannequins’ breasts with metal wire. After months of torment by police, the shop owners took the mannequins to their basements and –
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Decapitated. They behead mannequin. They were putting something like this…
ESSAY: A diagonal surface replaced the neck of these beheaded dolls on which the owners had now thrown long, dark scarves. The beheaded mannequins were left with only a round face made out of cardboard. The ideal woman for fundamentalists was a woman who did not have eyes to see, tongue to speak, and legs to run away.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Within only a few years all Iranian women would be forced to wear the veil… The very thing that Mehrangiz had laughed at, the submission of the mannequins, was now her real life. Before ‘79, the veil had been worn by many women willingly. But after the revolution, the government used the veil as a new form of policing, a way to detain and punish women. Men in vans picked up any woman without a proper veil. It wasn’t enough to merely wear a scarf on one’s head – the hair had to be fully covered, and the scarf itself could only be black, dark blue, or dark gray.
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Dead, dead colors.
ESSAY: The atmosphere in Iran became one of terror, and ruthless oppression. The revolution washed away all the gleeful colors of our lives.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The interesting thing is, just four decades prior, the father of the Shah had mandated that all women be…unveiled. Now, they were demanding the opposite. Either way, women had no choice in the matter.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Why do you think Khomeini put such an emphasis on the veil?
AZAR NAFISI: The way we are, the way we feel, the way we dress, the way we walk- they replaced our individual image with a uniform image which is symbolized in the veil.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Azar Nafisi, a writer and professor. Her most famous book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.
AZAR NAFISI: And so we all become figments of the Ayatollah’s imagination rather than being real.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Azar remembers when the hijab mandate came down, she wrestled with whether she should wear it to keep her job, or refuse out of principle….
AZAR NAFISI: I remember one person telling me, “Why don’t you just wear it? It’s just a piece of cloth!” I told him, “It’s not just a piece of cloth. It symbolizes something. I don’t want my students, even my Islamic students, who had seen me without the veil last week, now see me with the veil and know that I have done it in order to not be expelled, in order to make money.”
SHIMA OLIAEE: More and more mandates were announced to censor their bodies in the public sphere. Tight pants, skirts, and dresses were outlawed. Coats had to be longer than one’s knees. One body part was hidden after the other. Even if girls played sports, they could no longer do so with boys. And were forced to play with the heavy clothing and their new uniform. Throughout a game, the hijab could not come off.
ESSAY: The ruling fundamentalists considered the individual identity of women as the most perilous to their enduring power.
They needed to destroy that identity.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Women were visibly redacted from public life. And the redactions bled even to any display of emotion: Singing and dancing in public became forbidden. Even eye contact could lead to violence. Following that, everything became segregated by gender. The beaches, the buses, schools, parks. Women knew they were safest if they could just become invisible.
AZAR NAFISI: The state did not merely punish criminals. It was there to flog and jail girls for wearing nail Polish, Reebok shoes, or lipstick. It was there to watch over young girls appearing in public. The joy had gone out. You know, was forbidden, basically.
SHIMA OLIAEE: What is the meaning of that?
AZAR NAFISI: That is how they control you. Any kind of expression of joy is hazardous to their health. When my daughter was growing up, she was in love with soccer. I remember the way she bloomed when she went to play, you know that feeling of –
SHIMA OLIAEE: Happiness!
AZAR NAFISI: Happiness! Because freedom is like happiness.
SHIMA OLIAEE: And Mehrengiz says freedom –
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Social freedom is very important, especially for women. Because without social freedom, women cannot think about political freedom.
SHIMA OLIAEE: One of the last places in the country where women could go, to cheer or scream, was the national soccer stadium.
FRANK SINATRA: There are many many crazy things that will keep me loving you.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The one where Frank Sinatra sang…
FRANK SINATRA: And with your permission may I list a few…]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Then, in the fall of 1981, two years after the Revolution, after the beheading of the mannequins, women arrive at the stadium gates to watch a game in their new attire: Veils, heavy pants, the full regalia in coarse black fabric.
SHIMA OLIAEE: At the gates of Azadi stadium, the women are blocked by guards and told to go home. They were no longer allowed inside. When the women argued they should be allowed to enter, the guards laughed and told them they were banned. All across Iran, they could no longer watch soccer in public.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They said women were too delicate to be alongside men in such a rowdy environment. That they needed to be protected from the temptation of the men’s bare legs. Also, the stadium had been renamed. It was no longer called Aryamehr.
Frank Sinatra: No, they can’t take that away from me, no…]
SHIMA OLIAEE: It was now Azadi stadium.
In farsi, Azadi means freedom.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Azadi is the word the women shouted as they marched for the rights they’d now lost…
SHIMA OLIAEE: As I’ve been reporting this story, I’ve spoken to dozens of women, Iranian activists and writers, who argue over the importance of the stadium ban. Some say that the stadium is a silly thing to focus on when the country suffers from drought, poverty, and human rights abuses.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But to me, the stadium matters for the same reason the mannequins matter. These symbols had real-life impact. They created a new world. Symbols in Iran were used to instill fear and communicate to all women – you are weak like basil, delicate like a pearl, we must protect you. But, a symbol can be taken back and redefined: Basil in the wild can be poisonous. A pearl ingested can choke you. And a veil can be mounted on a stick and lifted as a flag or burned as a torch. In banning women from the national soccer stadium the regime revoked their identity as full citizens.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But they simultaneously made women’s bodies the barometer for measuring the power of the new dictatorship in Iran. And if you name a stadium freedom and ban women from it, you give women the place where they can go – to take their freedom back.
SHIMA OLIAEE: So the stadium is symbolic?
MEHRANGIZ KAR: Yes, very symbolic. But! I should add this one: This is very serious war with dictatorship. They are getting weak in struggle with women. They say do that! Do this! But they cannot! They cannot control women. They cannot control women, and they cannot control young generation.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The next generation will have no memory of how the mannequins used to look, their rouge lips and their caramel-colored long hair, or of women and men cheering side by side at the soccer stadium.
They will only know a world where public spaces are off limits – where they are told they need protection, and that protection comes from the regime.
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the next episode we’ll see how the national stadium AZADI becomes a battlefield. We’ll follow a group of women who make it their mission to infiltrate the stadium.
MAHBOUBEH: I screamed, my leg is broken! Ah! Help! Help! Ambulance is coming with pew, pew, pew, pew.
SARA: Troops! Push their boots to our back!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Where did you hide the radio?
NASRIN: I hold it in my hand under my scarf, so he couldn’t see that.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I love that the scarf hid the radio.
NASRIN: Yes! [laughter]
SARA: It was magical moment. Like, miracle.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That, in Episode three.
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.
Megan Rapinoe, Sue Bird, and myself, Shima Oliaee, are executive producers.
Our production coordinator is Marisa Bravo. And we had help from Diba Motasham.
Nesa Azakhizadeh wrote our theme song.
SHIMA OLIAEE: A huge thank you for the voice-over talents of Sarah Shahi.
SHIMA OLIAEE: A very special thanks to Nina Ansary, Maryam Shojaei, Minky Worden, Hadi Gaemi, Ramin Golbang, Moya Dodd, Glorivette Somoza, Malinda Romero, and everyone at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
SHIMA OLIAEE: At 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.