Shima Oliaee on her new 30 for 30 Series 'Pink Card' and the Revolutionary Iranian Women Who Inspire Her
AN INTERVIEW WITH SHIMA OLIAEE
At the heart of prolific producer Shima Oliaee’s work is a simple desire: to bring to the forefront voices that’ve been erased from history. The first-generation Iranian-American is co-creator of the Peabody Award-winning podcast series ‘Dolly Parton’s America’ — and now is breaking what is perhaps her most revolutionary story yet. Launching in November and produced in partnership with ESPN’s 30 for 30, ‘Pink Card’ reveals the creative resistance of Iranian girls across three generations. In Iran, women are banned from soccer stadiums. Iran’s national soccer stadium, Azadi “FREEDOM” Stadium, became the stage where women risked their lives and dared to take their freedom back.
Ahead of Pink Card’s exclusive world premiere at On Air LA Annex, we sat down with Shima to hear more about the making of this hyper-relevant series.
ON AIR FEST:
On its surface, ‘Pink Card’ is a podcast about soccer, but something you've done with the work is infuse it with so many other narratives — your personal history and the history of women's rights in Iran. Why was it important for you to bring all of these stories together in this project? And can you tell us more about your family’s history and its intersection with the revolution in Iran?
There were a couple of questions I had at the beginning of reporting. One was, why, in the West, are Middle Eastern women largely perceived to be passive or weak? I saw a lot of those narratives growing up in the news and media, and I knew that not to be true, so I started with that question.
My mother left Iran in ‘79 as a freshman in college. She had been a teenager in the streets protesting and rioting until her parents put her on a plane and got her out of the country. When she arrived in America — in Reno, Nevada — she met my dad, who'd been sent over by his family just a few months earlier. They met at the university campus and fell in love. And then I was born.
As a kid, my dad and my mom would talk all the time about how women led the revolution in Iran, about the girls who had stood in front of the tanks in ‘79 alongside the men. But [women] were the first population in Iran to have their rights restricted once the Shah fled, so it felt like such a bittersweet moment where they had fought for this great goal, and overnight the victory was stripped from the women specifically. It was a true betrayal.
So I grew up knowing that women and girls in Iran had always dared to fight the system. But then I also saw what happened to them and how quickly their freedom was extinguished. The next big question for me was — how does this happen to such a strong, smart, creative part of the population? That’s where the power of symbols helped elucidate what happened and unfolds in a nightmare of a story we get to in Episode 2.
ON AIR FEST:
Why did you choose soccer as the backdrop for this larger story?
[Growing up] my mom would light up when telling me stories about playing soccer in Iran, when she was a girl. I started looking at the history of the sport in Iran. That’s when I discovered that in ‘81 women were banned from the national soccer stadium, which was renamed “Azadi” when the women were kicked out. In Farsi, Azadi means “freedom.” Three generations of women in Iran then used Azadi stadium as the battlefield, a symbol to take their freedom back.
What we’re seeing today in the streets of Iran is three generations' worth of incitement, resistance and rebellion. Women in Iran used the stadium as a stage to broadcast their message and the truth about their lives to the world. Anything that you might think or have been told about Iranian women — [these women] mess with those preconceptions.
ON AIR FEST:
Is there something you've learned about yourself through making ‘Pink Card’?
When you're a daughter of immigrants, there’s things about your personality that you feel like don't really fit with American society. You always kind of feel like you live in the hyphen between Iranian and American. As an Iranian-American girl in America, I never wanted to be too big, too loud or take up too much space. The things that were loud about me I tried to curtail in order to assimilate.
These women who risked their lives made me feel like I have freedom here in a way that they don't have, and I need to have some more courage. I want to use my freedom to free someone else. What I learned is that I come from a line of women that are very courageous and very loud — everything they did to resist was underground, devious and creative. And they had to be. They did not have the privilege to be nice or quiet about anything. I think that they really taught me that I need to have a lot more guts and be a lot more formidable if I want to continue to grow.
This series is about Iranian women's liberation, but also it's my own liberation. It's my first solo project, where I got to lead it and build it from scratch. I built a company to do it independently, and partnered with ESPN 30 for 30. And the name of my company, Shirazad Productions, is actually a play on Scheherazade, which is the main character from One Thousand and One Nights. She has to tell a story each night to the sultan in order to not be beheaded by morning. So by telling stories, she reforms the heart of the king and she also saves all the women that will come after her.
ON AIR FEST:
You’re reporting from America mostly, with the women via Zoom. I would love to hear a little bit more about the process of connecting with these women and even just your process of interviewing them. How often could you speak with them? What was that like?
For the women inside Iran, it's terrifying. When I wouldn't be able to reach one of them for several days, I didn't know what happened to them. [These women] walked me through the whole process of how [they] had to close down [their] laptops and phones. There’s so many levels of protection so that if [their] home is ransacked in the middle of the night and things are taken, no one can get access to files and contacts.
ON AIR FEST:
What has it been like to finish this story as this new uprising is erupting across Iran?
I was approaching this series before the protests broke out across the country, simply as an audio producer. I really wanted to replace the sounds and images of Iran in the media with the laughter of girls, the [sounds] of girls rebelling, shouting and singing. And what's amazing about this moment is that it is naturally happening in tandem with the release of the series. You're going to hear how that sound and joy of Iranian girls happened in very secret spaces before it could be in the open air, streets, and in public.
The world premiere event for Pink Card is Thursday, November 3 at On Air LA Annex, KCRW Los Angeles. The full series launches on all podcast platforms in November.
About 30 for 30 Podcasts
30 for 30 Podcasts, from ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, are original audio documentaries, featuring stories from the world of sports and beyond. Stories about NBA activism, NFL video games, polar exploration, Olympic failure and more. Our two critically acclaimed serialized seasons have dived deep into stories like the reckoning brought on the NBA by the leaked tape of racist remarks from former Los Angeles Clippers owner, Donald Sterling (now in production as a scripted series for FX Networks).
The series has been recognized by the Gracie Awards, the NYF International Radio Awards, the Webby Awards, and the RTDNA Kaleidoscope Awards, as well as included on numerous “best-of” lists from press outlets such as The Atlantic, Vulture, TIME and Entertainment Weekly. Episodes have also been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, CBC, Slate Podcasts and elsewhere.