Sahar Khodayari, a 29-year-old Iranian woman, grew up dreaming of watching a soccer match from inside Iran’s famed national stadium, Azadi Stadium. Iranian women have been banned from attending sporting events for roughly 40 years, but Khodayari was determined. In 2019, she attempted to sneak into the stadium.
Khodayari was quickly arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. On September 2 of that year, she set herself on fire as a political statement and died in a hospital the following week from severe burns. As international outrage surrounding her death spread online, Khodayari became known as Blue Girl: Blue is the color of her favorite team, Esteghlal.
Iranian “women made soccer their bull’s eye target,” Shima Oliaee, the host of the new ESPN 30 for 30 podcast, Pink Card, told Jezebel. Even after Blue Girls’ death, women are still fighting for access to that stadium: “Soccer and women’s rights in Iran [can] not be unbraided. They [are] a part of the same movement.”
Almost exactly three years later, and two months before the start of the Middle East’s first World Cup, Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died while in the custody of the country’s “morality police,” after she’d been detained for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly. The incident sparked a deadly, country-wide uprising that’s since turned into the biggest public demonstration against the regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. All the while, the Qatar World Cup—seething with global geopolitical implications, a rising body count, and an audience of billions of soccer fans—carried on in nearly complete silence.
But the legacy of Blue Girl and her contemporaries lives on. In Pink Card Oliaee, a Peabody and duPont Award-winning producer, tells the story of the Soccer Women: A group of women and girls spanning three generations who continue to fight for their right to watch soccer—and live freely—in Iran. The series features the voices of Iranian activists and writers, including Zeinab Sahafi, a young Iranian woman exiled for cross-dressing her way into stadiums. To enhance her disguise, she used ace bandages to strap down her breasts, stuffed a sock in her pants, cut off pieces of hair and glued them to her face, and muddied her fingernails. In her mind, the only way to access the stadium was to became a boy because, as Oliaee’s mother says, women and girls in Iran are “half of a man.” To this day, Sahafi still cannot return home.
For decades, Iranian girls and women have watched in horror as the regime does everything in its power to muzzle them—severing breasts and hands off of storefront mannequins to send a warning, and banning public singing, dancing, and, at one point, nail polish. But as the World Cup quietly comes to a close, their chants of “woman, life, freedom”—and their search for justice, bodily autonomy, and agency—only roar louder.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jezebel: I understand you started reporting this story nearly three years ago. Where did the first inkling of an idea come from?
Shima Oliaee: The striking thing about growing up in America as a child of Iranian immigrants was that I’d been given a lot of stereotypical images about what Iran was. One of the most predominant images was men screaming in the streets and chanting angrily, and I didn’t see Iranian women at all. In my own family, the women were so strong and powerful, and they were the most intimidating part of my childhood. Everyone’s scared of my grandma! As I was recording my last podcast series, I started asking my mother questions about her childhood in Iran, and she sounded like a broken record: She told the same stories over and over, and every single one of them was connected to soccer.
So, I looked for my own stories. I started looking at soccer and Iran and very quickly discovered that in 1981, two years after the Iranian revolution of 1979—and two years after my mother fled the country—women were banned from Iran’s national soccer stadium, named “Azadi” or “Freedom” Stadium. When I followed that history, I stumbled upon these different generational movements to get back into that stadium and met this incredible cast of heroes—women who risked their lives and used that stadium to take their freedom back. As it turns out, soccer and women’s rights in Iran could not be unbraided. They were a part of the same movement, no matter how they splintered off.
How has Azadi Stadium come to represent their fight for autonomy over their bodies?
The girls that start to look at the stadium as a way to question and challenge the regime are very aware that their bodies are a source of fear for those in power. Because the national stadium is renamed “Freedom” Stadium and because the one unifying force that continues to grow in Iran is the love of soccer, it becomes the best way to challenge what you can do in a country that says you can basically do nothing.
Soccer is a way to gather and to focus people. It’s also the place where you can get your message out to the outside world in a country that’s now become overrun by censorship and surveillance. One way that the country stays connected to the modern world is through Azadi Stadium. So, this group of 11 girls that we meet in the podcast get very creative, meet weekly for years, and plan these infiltrations of Azadi in secret spaces. It’s also a method for staying safe. Someone getting murdered over a soccer game is absolutely atrocious, and people will write about that story because the international media covers soccer. The regime is slightly more afraid to cause an uproar at an international game where there are delegates from another country. That’s why the women made soccer their bull’s eye target.
Zeinab’s passion shines brightly throughout the podcast. But much of the series was recorded before the murder of Mahsa Amini. Has that event and the resulting uprising changed her?
The last time I interviewed Zeinab in Turkey, I saw firsthand how her life had been destroyed. We don’t share this in the podcast, but it doesn’t just ruin you physically to be an exile at 22 years old and to lose everything you have—your home, your friends, your family—but it destroys you mentally, too. And for what? For the love of watching soccer games? For grown men in your country to destroy you because of videos you made as a teenager saying you love soccer? What kind of faith is it possible to have in life after you see that kind of injustice, and without repercussions? After what happened to Zeinab over the last three years, she is not the same person.
I called her in March of this year because Iran was playing Lebanon in Mashhad. The last time Iranian women were able to purchase tickets to watch a soccer game was in 2019. This year, however, the regime’s leaders finally said they would again be able to purchase tickets for that March game. When women showed up, they were pepper sprayed and beaten. The very next week, the FIFA World Congress happened, and they made no mention of what took place at the game—as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
On the phone, Zeinab told me, “I don’t think they should play. They don’t deserve to play. No one should be playing. This is wrong. The women still can’t go to the stadium. We thought we could go. Blue Girl died, and we still can’t go to the stadium.” Now, looking at everything that has happened since then, I felt it was as if she was telling me what was going to happen. Women are the great barometer of what’s going on in that country.
Kind of like a canary in a coal mine?
Yes. Iranian women are canaries in the global coal mine. And the soccer women were canaries in Iran’s coal mine.
While reporting this podcast, I obviously had no idea that Mahsa Amini was going to be murdered, especially in the horrific way that she was murdered for two inches of hair showing underneath her headscarf. Those things happen in Iran behind closed doors more than we like to talk about. The regime was hoping that because she was not from the capital, the main city, and because she was Kurdish, that people would look the other way. And the Soccer Women, those Stadium Fighters, were the foreshadowing of this moment.
Given your years of reporting on these girls and the Soccer Women, what was your experience like watching this year’s World Cup unfold?
Right before the World Cup kicked off, one of the women named Sara (who uses a pseudonym to protect her identity) wrote an open letter to FIFA. In it, she said that the Iranian team should not be playing in the World Cup. She said it very publicly, not as before in private spaces between other women and human rights fighters and activists. A lot of Iranian women and most of the Iranian youth felt very similarly. The people I was still connected to inside the country were angry at the team for even participating because part of your participation is showing respect to the country’s leaders, who had aided in this execution and countless others.
But Sara also brought up a very powerful point, which is: If the cameras pick up fans in the stadium in Qatar with their signs protesting on behalf of women, when those fans go back to Iran, you don’t know what will happen to them. Even when the Iranian national team didn’t sing the national anthem in protest, all I could think was, “Oh my god, what is going to happen to their families?” Their families are inside Iran. This is a regime that does not use logic to exact punishment. Everyone who participated in that game, whether they spoke up or not, is at risk, including retired players. Ali Karimi, who has been a huge champion of the women’s stadium movement, spoke up ahead of the World Cup, and all of his possessions in Iran were seized. And they’ve already started committing one execution after another.
At the same time, my mom loves soccer. She’s part of the fervor, and I watched the other countries advancing: Their fans were so happy and focused on the game. But…when do we stop and say something else is more important? When do we say we can’t just keep going as it was? When do we ask more of each other and of each other’s humanity?
How is FIFA complicit in what has happened and continues to happen to the Soccer Women?
My associate producer who grew up in Iran described the experience of living there as boiling water: You can’t ever breathe, and you feel like at any moment, you could snap. When you are oppressed in this way, she says, every movement you make is either countering the regime or acquiescing to dictators. And we have to look at the World Cup and FIFA as part of that. You are uniting with executioners. There is so much blood on FIFA’s hands, including the migrant workers that died building that stadium in Qatar.
FIFA is also a microcosm of the corruption of the world at large. If you give every country a vote for the next president, and the next president of FIFA sides with dictators and bribes and corruption, it means that the majority of the countries in this world are led by corruption. While the rest of the world went World Cup crazy, the Soccer Women had already moved on. They moved on from the World Cup three months ago when Mahsa Amini was murdered.
This touches upon something I think about a lot, which is the privilege of being able to watch a sport and not think about what its implications are or what’s culturally happening around it.
What I really learned from the Iranian women I spoke to was that they never had the luxury of being quiet. They never had the luxury to look the other way. Even when they wanted to watch soccer joyfully, it was coupled with a deeper fight, as they started to question why they can’t just go watch soccer like men. In trying to capture this story, I really wanted to bow to their simple desire to have fun. Justice is of the utmost importance, but without the joy, you cannot sustain the fight. And that’s what the Stadium Fighters had: justice coupled with joy. That’s why the movement lasted so many decades. That’s why those women are still fighting. No matter what country you live in and no matter what freedoms you think you have, their experience of freedom is a level of ecstasy we do not know—even in a place we call the land of the free.
In the podcast, legendary Iranian activist and writer Mehrangiz Kar says, “Freedom is like happiness. Without social freedom, women cannot think about political freedom.” She ties those ideas of joy and justice together so beautifully.
Yes! And one thing I really wanted to do with the series was to replace the sounds of screaming angry men that people thought of when they thought of Iran with the sound of giggling girls, yelling girls, cheering girls, and singing girls. Hearing those sounds changes how we view the humanity of people who live in another country and helps us hear from those we wouldn’t normally hear from. Hearing the sounds of young women in joy is a beautiful sound for everyone to experience, and the sound of victory, of overcoming an impossible obstacle, an impossible enemy, and impossible odds is healing for everyone.