The White Scarves One game sets off a movement. In 1997 Iran surprisingly makes the World Cup in the last three minutes of play in a game against Australia. When Iran’s national team gets helicoptered into Azadi Stadium to celebrate, women are asked to stay home. They don’t listen, and thousands rush the stadium. This is the origin story of the White Scarves, a group that uses international soccer matches to defy the regime and take back their country. As the White Scarves gain international fame, they face grave danger at home.
Episode 3: The White Scarves
SARA: You know Tehran’s a big city. You never see this city quiet. There was no one on the street.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Everyone is inside watching “the game.”
It’s 1997. 18 years since the Revolution…the country is still reeling from a war with Iraq. But, today, everyone is watching soccer.
SARA: The match was at 1:30pm. And in school, you couldn’t watch the football.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Sara. She is 15 years old at the time, a sophomore in high school.
SARA: I went to the manager of a school, and I beg her, please let us go home, and watch this match. And she was like, on one condition, I was like, what? She said, you have to bring all the students to the prayer room. Those girls have to do a noon prayer [laughter] Then she will let us go! And I was like this is the condition. We went to the prayer room, did the prayer, then escaped the school!
NASRIN: It was very, very sensitive game. I was university student, and most of the university classes were canceled.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin is also in class at her university that day, 20 miles away.
NASRIN: We had this very, very strict professor. He can’t even hear such these things. He said like, this bullshit, that you want to cancel my class to go to stadium?!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin is 19 at the time.
NASRIN: So, I was at his class, having my radio, my small radio. I said, everyone, ok don’t worry, I will let you know when we make goal!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Was it in your bra? Like where did you put it?
NASRIN: I hold it in my hand under my [farsi] under my scarf, so he couldn’t see that.
SHIMA OLIAEE: [laughs] I love that the scarf hid your radio!
NASRIN: Yes! [laughter]
SHIMA OLIAEE: What the freak.
NASRIN: This scarf was very good for me, it was kind of, uh, adventure.
HOST 1: The city of Melbourne glitters in the early evening as the mcg prepares to host Australia’s most important football match in four years. It is Australia versus Iran. The second and final leg of a two match contest, which began in the cauldron of the Azadi Stadium in Tehran a week ago.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: In 1997 women are still shut out of Azadi stadium. And all live soccer games in Iran. Crackdowns continue on many types of freedom. Government surveillance and censorship are rampant.
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the midst of this, a group of women make it their mission to infiltrate Azadi Stadium and lift the ban on women watching games. They call themselves the White Scarves.
SHIMA OLIAEE: I’m Shima Oliaee from Shirazad Productions. And from 30 for 30 Podcasts, this is Pink Card, Episode 3. The White Scarves. This is the story of that group of women, told through six soccer games.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This is Game #1: Australia versus Iran.
It’s the final qualifying match for the 98 world cup. If Iran loses they won’t make the cup, but if they win – or even tie – they’ll get in.
HOST 1: Well, it should’ve been an easy save for the goalkeeper!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Iran was once a global soccer superpower. Now –
HOST 1: Oh! Just past the post!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: They’re getting annihilated. The only major move Iran makes at the start of the game –
HOST 1: The player expected to do a lot for Iran, that’s his first touch. And not on the ball either.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: is fouling an Australian player. 30 minutes in:
HOST 1: Kewell to the back post!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Australia scores its first goal.
HOST 1: Australia! Listen to the roar!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Did your heart drop?
NASRIN: I was so upset. Like, very very emotional. Everyone said you just risked your life because if Mr G. If he could like grab you with radio, definitely, he would kill you.
SHIMA OLIAEE: At halftime –
HOST 1: It’s Australia 1, Iran nil.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: It is 1-0 Australia. As the Iranian players leave the field, you can see in the faces of each player a clear mirror of what has transpired in the last 18 years in Iran.
NEWS BROADCASTER: Deep in Iranian territory Iraqi armor chalks up fresh successes on the battlefield. ]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The year after the revolution, 1980.
NEWS BROADCAST 2: Good evening, from Baghdad.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Iraq invades Iran leading to a bloody 8 year war. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians are massacred.
NASRIN: We, we moved to Mashad because Tehran was not safe anymore. But like, it was a very bad situation because of all the war situation and sanctions against Iran.
SHIMA OLIAEE: For people all around Iran, including Nasrin and Sara as very young girls, soccer became an obsession, a needed escape.
SARA: Football became so popular! I feel like, oh, I like this team! I start to recognize the players. I became a huge sport fan.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin and Sara didn’t know each other at this time, but they are both mesmerized by the tv and the radio, as the second half begins.
HOST 1: Ball to the back post, Kewell is there.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the first two minutes, Australia scores its second goal.
HOST 2: Well Iran have already blown three chances to qualify for the World Cup Finals.]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The announcers basically call the game.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But then! Something peculiar happens. The Iranian goalie stops the game. He points to a 2 foot gap in the netting of his goal post, and says, “It needs to be fixed before we continue.” An Australian fan had stormed the field and cut Iran’s net. So reps run down to the field, re-weaving the net for several minutes.
When the game resumes, just minutes later:
HOST 1: Iran has scored!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Iran scores its first goal.
Two minutes after that, Iran’s lead striker -Asia’s reigning player of the year, Khodadadd Azizi, takes the ball and shoots.
HOST 1: Two two here!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: He scores.
HOST 1: Disaster for Australia!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: In minutes, Iran has gone from 0-2 to 2-2.
HOST 2: Australia was a better team, but uh that’s football, as they say.
HOST 1: The match is over!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: The game ends in a tie. And because Iran scored more away goals, they got the World Cup spot. Back in Iran –
NASRIN: I shouted: We won! We won!!!!
SHIMA OLIAEE: The country erupts.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin is still sitting with her hidden radio in her university class.
NASRIN: I couldn’t be silent anymore. We were very happy. And all of us went to the streets!
SHIMA OLIAEE: All across Iran, people run outside. Cars stop wherever they are, and begin blasting music.
SARA: That specific match, everyone from old to young, women, men, everyone get involved.
NASRIN: I remember a girl went on top of a [paycon] a taxi and dance!
SHIMA OLIAEE: A spontaneous block party launches all over the country.
SARA: It was national celebration!
NASRIN: Everyone get a sherbert, box of sweets, and give to others.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Kids blast out fireworks.
NASRIN: Firework. Car horn. The traffic didn’t move. People stopped everything, their job, shout, screaming.
SHIMA OLIAEE: And then! Women –
NASRIN: Women take the chance to remove their scarves. [laughter]
SHIMA OLIAEE: Women throw off their hijabs.
NASRIN: Even boys come and said, ok, nobody can touch her! Like, go and dance! Kind of like showing solidarity with women [laughter]
at least once in a while!
SHIMA OLIAEE: Both Sara and Nasrin told me after what felt like a national purgatory that had lasted nearly 20 years, for the first time there is a sense in Iran that joy is possible.
NASRIN: Until the midnight we were in the street.
SHIMA OLIAEE: And the celebrations don’t stop. Sara told me the next day at her school –
SARA: Imagine everyone dancing something really special. It never happened in my whole life. They were breaking the big law, but it was such a fun.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh, I forgot that it was a law that you can’t dance in public.
SARA: And not in a school, especially Islamic school, they will expel you.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That evening, a crowd gathered at the stadium.
The government warned women to stay home.
SARA: I was a like young person that say, okay, why you are saying no to me? I really wanted to go to the stadium.
SHIMA OLIAEE: She wasn’t alone in that thinking.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That night, five thousand women crash the gates of Azadi, alongside the men. And for good measure, once inside the stadium, they strip off their veils in defiance.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This moment stays with Nasrin and Sara for a long time. They see a different Iran, and it changes them. This is when Sara starts buying soccer magazines, opening her up to feminist ideas that had basically been banned. Iranian magazine editors would sneak in radical articles in sports mags to avoid the censors. And so as her love of soccer grows, so does her love for these feminist ideas.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin was pursuing a physics degree at the time. She eventually realizes that no matter how many doctoral degrees she acquires, her rights as a citizen continue to dissolve. She abandons her science studies and enrolls in graduate school, for women’s studies. In 2005, she meets several like-minded students. They start meeting on Mondays to talk about issues they see in Iran.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara hears about the group through a neighbor.
SARA: We had a meeting in one of the girl’s house. Yeah, secret!
SHIMA OLIAEE: To avoid being stopped by the police in the evening, the group meet early in the morning.
SHIMA OLIAEE: How many girls would meet?
SARA: Maybe 11 –
SHIMA OLIAEE: So like about, about the same amount of people that are on a soccer team. So 11.
SHIMA OLIAEE: 11 girls would meet.
SARA: Yeah yeah, we had different campaign in that group of girls. The other people, they were responsible for stoning campaign. The other one, they were for family laws.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The legal marriage age at the time had only gone up from 9 years old in ‘79 to 13 years old in 2005.
SARA: Me and two others we were mostly responsible for the stadium campaign.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin, Sara, And Mahboubeh. This is Mahboubeh at a Stadiums Campaign meeting. She is an OG feminist and activist. She was one of the women who helped push the Shah out of the country in ‘79. Mahboubeh told me she found the women about the stadium campaign via teen blogs online.
MAHBOUBEH: They were different, and how they love football.
They were new generation. Not like us, my generation, our thing was about imperialism, colonialism, and not about the ordinary life of people. When I was young, as a revolutionary, sport was very bourgeois, like oh my god, oh you are so bougie! I find oh my god, that is about expression, freedom of expression. It was a kind of liberation, you know?
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mahboubeh, Nasrin and Sara thought fighting for women to enter Azadi Stadium could get the attention to make a bigger change and shake up the country. And so…
SARA: The group started in June 2005. We had that match with Bahrain.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That’s how we get to Game 2. Iran vs Bahrain. 2005.
At Azadi Stadium.
MAHBOUBEH: It was also during presidential election.
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the spring of that year, a new politician Mostafa Moeen announced that he was running for President. He was a reformist, like the current guy at the time, Khatami. So, they announced a big public appearance together at Azadi.
ANNOUNCER: Khatami makes his way to his seat with more than 100,000 at Azadi Stadium!]
SHIMA OLIAEE: To make a show of how Moeen was more women-friendly than any predecessor, he announced he would personally bus his female supporters into Azadi Stadium to watch the World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain.
SARA: There was lots of foreign journalists. They came to cover this match.
SHIMA OLIAEE: A World Cup qualifying match meant, there’d be a lot of cameras there, and a lot of international attention.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The day of the match the women got up early and arrived at the designated bus stop.
SHIMA OLIAEE: When they pulled up to the gates of Azadi… they were not allowed inside. They realized the political female followers were just being used for a photo op. None of them would be seeing the game.
NASRIN: I wanted to tell them, that do you see that they are using you? These are like reformists, reformists always they are like this! They just wanted to take some photos, they had their photos, then, ok now we are going back!
SHIMA OLIAEE: The guards confiscated their posters and ripped them into pieces.
MAHBOUBEH: We say hey, we are here. We want to see your game.
NASRIN: We just sit in front of the gate but still they didn’t want us even sit there!
MAHBOUBEH: People, they are passing, going inside. And they are men. They are free men.
SHIMA OLIAEE: So the guards then –
NASRIN: They beat us.
SARA: They really beat us, really badly.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara actually told me that the officers called over female agents to do the dirty work.
SARA: A female agent, troops. And these women, they just circulate around us. There was also a line of the soldiers, with their boots, they just push their boots to our back.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They recorded everything. This audio you’re hearing in the background is actually from a video from Mahboubeh. She got everything on tape.
SARA: I remember there was a woman activist, the only one wearing chador, the black hijab. And they really beat her up. It was really scary. We imagine maybe we are going to prison or something worse is going to happen.
SHIMA OLIAEE: After all that planning, they found themselves blocked at the gates, their posters ripped apart, sitting on the ground shielding themselves from the violence of boots. Though they knew their plan was dangerous, they did not know it would go this badly.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The male fans entering the stadium simply stepped over their bodies, to enter the game. The politicians inside pretended it didn’t even happen.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That day, Iran won 1-0. And the women went home defeated. Just two weeks later, conservative hardliner Ahmadinejad became president. Things were bad for women under the old president. They got worse under this new one.
SARA: Amendinijad came to power, and they start shutting down civil society.
SHIMA OLIAEE: He pushed through legislation which made it harder for women to get jobs and into schools. And security forces in Iran become even more focused on punishing women.
SHIMA OLIAEE: With the World Cup coming up, the women felt it was more and more important that they get the message out. That they use the stadium as an international alarm, sounding out to the world what was really happening in Iran. They thought long and hard about their slogan. They knew that they wanted to incorporate the stadium’s name… Azadi, which again, in farsi means freedom… Their posters read:
SARA: It was like [farsi].
SHIMA OLIAEE: “Our share is half of Freedom.”
SARA: I think it was a great slogan at the time.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Game number 3: Iran versus Costa Rica. Both teams were heading to the World Cup in Germany that summer, Iran hadn’t made it back since that game in 98.
It’s now 2006.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara rises before dawn, drives and parks her car and heads to the bus that takes fans straight to the gates of Azadi. Several of her comrades arrive. The girls look into each others’ eyes in anticipation. They know anything can happen to them. They hide their signs under their hijabs. As the sun comes out, and the bus starts its engine, idling there in the parking lot, Sara can tell something isn’t right. A group of guards show up.
SARA: They forced us onto minibus.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They load them onto a separate vehicle, and they start heading south, in the opposite direction of the stadium.
SARA: We were really scared. We were more angry.
NASRIN: They took them to the desert and just let them go.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara and her friends walk for hours, finally encounter a car, and hitchhike back into the city. But the entire way, their frustration intensifies. That’s when Nasrin got an idea. They had to come up with a way to make their message visible. And the one thing, a man, a security guard even, would never touch or rip up, was their hijab… Nasrin suggests painting their motto across the back of their scarves…
NASRIN: The idea of writing our mottos on white scarf was mine.
SHIMA OLIAEE: That was a genius idea!
NASRIN: Yeah, yeah, at the time I didn’t expect it, but yeah, it was, it was good.
SARA: So we wrote that, we printed that on the white scarves. And that’s why they call us white scarves, since then!
SHIMA OLIAEE: They spray painted their slogan in red on white hijabs and donned them before the next game.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Game number four: Iran v Jordan August 15, 2008. A battle for the West Asian Football Federation Championship.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The girls came with their new message now literally worn on their heads. Because their chador-clad friend was brutally beaten and targeted in their first attempted infiltration. This time, they trained beforehand on what to do should a guard start kicking them, or beating them. Their goal was to –
NASRIN: Get beat a little beaten and then we leave! Not so much and not very little.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Getting beat up was good, if they could document it, but they just didn’t want anyone to actually get so hurt that they couldn’t recover. Everything was working according to plan, until they got to the gate.
MAHBOUBEH: Police suddenly pushed us and wanted to close the gate and don’t let us to go inside.
NASRIN: They try to push the door to gate to open and when we succeeded to open the gate, the guardians pushed back.
MAHBOUBEH: And in that moment, when we were screaming and we were so angry about this injustice, I felt pain in my leg, and I just saw my leg is between door!
NASRIN: Her leg was, was broken.
MAHBOUBEH: So I screamed, my leg is broken! My leg is broken! Ah, help, help, help! And then, and all of journalists they came!
MAHBOUBEH: They, they took picture! Oh, this is getting violence between police and protester. And then! I just felt that I am on the floor, and I am screaming until I’m keeping my leg in my hand and massaging. And my friends around me. Ambulance is coming with, “Pew pew pew pew!”
SHIMA OLIAEE: The ambulance takes Mahboubeh to the ER.
MAHBOUBEH: When I went to hospital, they said oh mahbubeh oh this is just normal injury, your leg is not broke.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Mahboubeh gets major press…and photos of the girls in their White Scarves with red writing and their slogan gets printed in international papers.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The White Scarves become famous in Iran overnight. After this victory, both Mahboubeh and Nasrin were arrested. Both women had already been notorious for writing for women’s magazines and politically organizing, outside of just their fight to get into the stadium.
SHIMA OLIAEE: A year after this game, Mahboubeh was released on one condition – that she delete every online post about the stadium protests. She did. But not before backing up extra copies, which is why we can hear the sounds of their protests now. That year, she fled to America. And never returned. Nasrin joined stateside shortly after.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Nasrin and Mahboubeh had been activists for decades. They were already known and targeted for speaking out. They knew this day might come.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But Sara had started young … And with Nasrin and Mahboubeh gone, at just 25 years old, Sara goes from being the baby of the group to its leader.
SHIMA OLIAEE:Game number 5: Iran versus South Korea. February 11, 2009. A World Cup qualifying match, with Iran’s biggest rival in the Asian league.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This is my favorite game in White Scarves history. And it all starts, in a thunderstorm.
SARA: it was such a rainy day. It was one of those like really heavy raining in Tehran.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara and two younger friends huddle in their car outside the South Korean Embassy in downtown Tehran. They are drenched –
SARA: I remember I was soaked wet. And we came to the car, and just put on the heater in the car –
SHIMA OLIAEE: They start running their car heater to dry their clothes.
SARA: All the windows in the car, it was like, so foggy. So no one outside could see us. So we took out our scarfs and put it on those places, the air was coming out, so it get dry a bit and we don’t get sick. I was the oldest one at the time, and I was like 25.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The car seats are covered in flyers they’d made with a message written in Korean.
SARA: It’s not easy to find someone that speak Korean. We found through a friend, a guy that could write Korean. They wrote on a paper that: Your Iranian sisters, they want to watch this match with you, but they cannot.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara and her friends had staked out the travel route of the South Korean delegation for months, watching to see the route that the delegates were going to take to get to Azadi stadium… Their plan was simple… to hand some flyers out about the stadium and go home.
SHIMA OLIAEE: All of a sudden – the girls see the delegation walking out of the embassy and toward their bus. It’s still pouring rain. Sara jumps out of the car to hand them fliers, followed by her three friends, but the Korean delegates just sort of look at the girls.
SARA: I have to say like they were so confused and it was like, they are coming from another world. I can completely understand, because even though we explain it to them, they were like what? We cannot understand. What, what you are talking about?
SHIMA OLIAEE: Thinking their plan had been derailed. Back Inside their little car, the windows fog up again.
SARA: We heard someone knocking on the window. There was a guy Iranian guy, but belongs to embassy…
SHIMA OLIAEE: Oh no.
SHIMA OLIAEE: It’s a man in a uniform knocking on their window. At this point they’re like fuuuuuuuuck.Game over.
SARA: I put down the window, and He said you want to go to the match?
And I was like, yeah, obviously and he gave us three tickets.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Wait what, this Iranian officer he just gave you three tickets to the game?
SARA: Yeah! You know at the time, we were so excited and we were thanking him immensely. But at that moment, I wasn’t really sure they gonna let us go.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Just as they’re about to start driving, another officer shows up.
SARA: And he was like, “okay, drive behind me.”
SHIMA OLIAEE: The White Scarves immediately start recording everything.
SHIMA OLIAEE: At a stoplight, a car filled with boys driving alongside see the girls heading to the stadium. Their mouths drop as they point to the girls. Sara and her friends wave back and one lets out a giggle.
SARA: I never saw a ticket before, so it was nice to have a ticket in your hands.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They cannot believe their good fortune and then!
SARA: They blocked the highways. Korean fans to go to the stadium, with the escort of the police, and we were behind the police. Really sort of VIP type.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They are almost afraid to breathe as they enter the outer gates of AZADI. In the videos Sara took from inside her car, you can see the thunder clouds part ways above the stadium as they drive in. They are in soccer heaven.
SARA: So we entered to the stadium, and it was magical! I was like over the moon, in the clouds!
SHIMA OLIAEE: At Azadi there are three security gates, one after another. Three times when you can be caught and arrested. Sara had never gotten past the first gate.
SARA: Like I remember the times that we were beaten up and everything, but this time with the escort, we entered to the stadium.
SHIMA OLIAEE: At the first, you are patted down.
At the second, they check your ticket.
At the third one, they check one last time that you are a man.
They pass through all three, and no one stops them.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Now, they know that you can’t go to the game. Why would they do that?
SARA: Because we had a ticket, they thought that probably for some reason, we have these tickets. We have some sort of permission.
SHIMA OLIAEE: One peculiar note about the stadium worth mentioning: Is that, women of other nationalities are allowed into Azadi Stadium, even women from other muslim countries. It’s just Iranian women who are banned.
SARA: The same policeman he told me, “Don’t, cheer for Korea, cheer for Iran.” I was like, ah, not funny.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This was Sara’s first time inside the stadium…
SARA: With the line of Korean women.. we entered. We were so excited.
SHIMA OLIAEE: In the video Sara took, you see the four girls as they walk through the underpass, hidden now amongst Korean schoolchildren and their parents. As they make it to the end of the tunnel, the noise of the stadium starts roaring before them and they see the seats and the green of the pitch. As the players warm up, Sara is overwhelmed with emotion.
SARA: You always watch tv, but when you enter the actual place, it’s totally different. The vibe, the sound. It’s like from two dimensions to three dimensions! Which was really overwhelming…
SHIMA OLIAEE: She is packed into the stands with 120,000 fans.
SARA: I was receiving so much phone calls, even from the foreign journalists from outside, that I couldn’t even watch the football.
SHIMA OLIAEE: She doesn’t know whether to enjoy the game and watch it, or document it all.
She and her friends start learning the Korean cheers to try to blend in.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Unbeknownst to Sara, the cameras pick her up and miles away her friends are watching the game on television, and see Sara and the four girls sitting in the enemy’s stands.
They record their TV screens with their phones and send it to Sara.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Back at Azadi, Iran scores.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara snaps out of her euphoria of watching the match and gets back to work.
SARA: We start to, give those flyers to the, Korean women and start to take a photo with them.
SHIMA OLIAEE:Suddenly they’re approached by a female security guard.
SARA: And she came to us and she was like, What is this thing? Why are your political things in there? She was, like, really angry. And I was like, okay, we are in trouble.
SHIMA OLIAEE: The girls tried to shake her off, but she would not let it go.
SARA: She handed us to the security agent of the stadium,. I was like, okay, we are going to prison tonight. And the guy, he looked at us and was like, why you were sitting with Korea? Sit over here!
SARA: [laughs] It was so nice! Four of us. We just watch football and like, our mind was blowing.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Leaving the stadium, Sara and her friends are just so overcome with joy.
SARA: I think we were like, adrenaline it was just plumping in our blood.
SHIMA OLIAEE: They end up driving on the wrong side of the freeway on their way home.
SARA: Completely opposite side! I could like killed on that day, but it was really amazing. And when we came back, like I saw like BBC, they were talking about us. And I felt like tomorrow they are going to come and arrest us. But they didn’t. And it is my nicest memory of this campaign.
SHIMA OLIAEE: In a poetic way, that same day… happened to be the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.
SARA: It was a magical moment, like miracle. But I have to say, after 2009 we felt, that something better is going to happen. We didn’t know that uprising will happen. And you know, everything go darker and darker.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Exactly one year to the day after Sara’s victory at the national stadium, Tehran’s streets are swarmed with thousands of young people protesting, followed by a crackdown. That past summer Ahmendinijad had just won a second term, and most assumed the election had been rigged. A woman named Neda was shot on camera. In a few short days, thousands of young people protested and were arrested and killed. It was dubbed the Green Movement.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara, what happened to the White Scarves?
SARA: After 2009, I was basically the only one didn’t went to jail. And all of them when they came out of the prison, they went abroad. For four years, I can say I really went crazy, because all our group completely shattered.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Today, Sara is the last member of the White Scarves in Iran.
SARA: It’s really difficult because my friends also get really overwhelmed. They cut their relationship, because it’s scary for them. I was totally depressed.
SHIMA OLIAEE: This brings us to our last game: Iran versus Morocco. The World Cup in St. Petersburg, Russia 2018.
SHIMA OLIAEE: By this time Sara is an underground legend. Human rights orgs stateside have given her an official ticket. They fly her out to St Petersburg. Her first ever World Cup game.
SARA: It was a really hot day, humid.
According to television announcers, it was feverish.
SPORTSCENTER HOST 1: The other game of the day, Iran ticket on Morocco in group B, take me through it.]
SARA: It was my first time that I had ticket, like legit ticket to Iran’s World Cup. Imagine like there was like all those media outlets that I was talking from morning to the night, and all of them they felt I must be the happiest of my whole life.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara is in the stands, she’s watching her favorite team win at a World Cup Game and she’s there as an equal fan with a real ticket. It should feel like a victory…..but –
SARA: I wasn’t happy. I thought like, I am 35 years old at the time. And my biggest dream was to watch a football match?
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sitting in the stands, Sara realizes she had spent most of her life up until that point fighting to get into the stadium. It occurs to her that maybe it hadn’t been for anything.
SARA: I think I talked to all the media outlet. I was repeating so much this stuff. It was like frustrating for me, but mostly I was thinking about all those girls we start stadium campaign. I wish we were celebrating that moment together.
SHIMA OLIAEE: After the game, Human Rights Watch sponsors her to fly all the way to FIFA Headquarters in Switzerland to talk about the stadium campaign.
SARA: I remember I met with Gianni Infantino, the head of the FIFA, and I was like, I’m getting old. It’s been 13 years when you want to make change?
SHIMA OLIAEE: She says Infantino wrote a letter on the spot, threatening Iran with FIFA sanctions if they didn’t let women in –
SHIMA OLIAEE: Did it help at all?
SARA: No. It didn’t.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Sara closes the White Scarves chapter and begins to exist solely online under a new moniker, “Sara Open Stadiums.” Because it becomes too dangerous to be in person, her activism moves almost entirely online. The Monday meetings she enjoyed with her friends are now a distant memory. She works entirely alone.
SHIMA OLIAEE: But at the end of the day, Sara says there is one small victory.
SARA: It took us years. Now, anytime when they are talking about women’s rights, even conservatives, definitely in top of that they mention women going to the stadium. This is big deal. And it’s amazing.
SHIMA OLIAEE: Like Sara, Iran’s first modern poet, Alemtaj, began to question her life in Iran at 15 years old. That was the year she was married off to a tyrant, so she began to write the truth about her life. But because her husband forbade her from writing, she’d have to hide her poems. She hid them in the walls. She buried them in her garden. And when she died, her son unburied them and had them published. One of the poems was titled “To the future women of Iran.” In it she wrote, “The girl of Iran’s tomorrow is no girl of today. Like it or not, free from fetters, I will be. Those blissful days I will not behold, yet she who is my peer will see them all.”
On the next and last episode of Pink Card, we visit Zeinab in Turkey and tell the epic tale of today’s generation.
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 our executive producers. Our production coordinator is Marisa Bravo. And we had help from Diba Motasham.
A special thanks to Nina Ansary, Maryam Shojaei, Minky Worden, Houchang Chehabi, Hadi Gaemi, Ramin Golbang, Moya Dodd, Glorivette Somoza, Malinda Romero, and everyone at the Center for Human Rights in Iran.
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.
Thank you to all the members of the White Scarves. See you next episode. You won’t want to miss it.
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.