As she settles into a corner of a roomy sofa in her Brooklyn home, tucking her bare feet under tanned, birdlike legs, the charismatic, chattering 41-year-old woman with red-rimmed glasses in front of me certainly doesn’t look like a threat to national security. She speaks a mile a minute, smiles easily, and if I’ve ever I met a hugger, Masih Alinejad is it. And she’s often fussing with her hair. One moment, she is letting it down, a riot of tight brown curls springing out like a lion’s mane. The next, she’s gathering the strands into a high ponytail, adding several inches to her petite stature. As often, Alinejad has adorned her hair with a flower.
It’s the hair that got her into trouble.
“They are scared of my hair. They are scared of my voice. They are scared of my body. Me, as a woman, can scare the whole regime,” Alinejad says.
The “regime” is Iran’s theocratic political order, which Alinejad was forced to flee nine years ago as it cracked down on journalists and dissidents during the Green Movement, the pro-reform protests that swept Iran in 2009. As a teenager, Masih realized that being forced to wear the hijab was symbolic of the near complete control the regime maintains over women, and she “stealthily” started to remove first her chador, a full body cloak, and then her hijab.
Although she was not the first woman to protest the forced wearing of a headscarf in Iran, Alinejad has played a crucial role in accelerating a growing movement of civil disobedience that has spread from the relatively cosmopolitan capital, Tehran, to cities and small villages around the country. Alinejad started My Stealthy Freedom in 2014, a Facebook page where she posts photos of Iranian women taking off their hijabs in public. The campaign has spun off into a weekly protest, #WhiteWednesdays, which has yielded hundreds of photos and videos that Alinejad posts to legions of followers on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Telegram (a secure-messaging app that’s popular in Iran). Some of the videos have been viewed millions of times and garnered tens of thousands of comments.
The hijab protests have caught the attention of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, who made his feelings known in a March 8 speech and tweetstorm. The leader said his country’s enemies “spent money and created propaganda to trick a few girls into taking off their scarves, but in the end, what they got … was small and insignificant.” But for a supposedly “insignificant” movement, the regime is spending a lot of energy to contain it. According to the Tasnim News Agency, the regime has arrested at least 29 women who participated in the protests this year. Vida Movahed, a 31-year-old mother, was the first: She took off her headscarf, climbed a utility box and waved the scarf around on a pole in the center of Tehran. The image went viral, and many more women have since imitated the brazen act. According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, slanted metal sheets have been installed on utility platforms to make them harder to perch on.
Some of the protesters, collectively known as the Girls of Revolution Street, have received jail sentences of up to two years. And most recently, the well-known human rights lawyer representing some of the women, Nasrin Sotoudeh was herself arrested. Sotoudeh faces national security related charges for simply meeting with a client who participated in a hijab protest.
“We don’t know what will happen to her, but [her arrest] is an example of how women are supporting each other and how deep this movement is,” says Hadi Ghaemi of the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Nasrin Sotoudeh is a very major figure right now as a brave woman who stood up for the rights of all women.”
Sotoudeh remains in Evin Prison. While Yahoo News was with Alinejad, she was in communication with one of Sotoudeh’s clients, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, a mother who had already been arrested twice by the regime. Shajarizadeh had escaped Iran just days before, worried about imprisonment. The mother had been threatened by security forces to drop Sotoudeh as her lawyer and to stop sharing photos of herself participating in #WhiteWednesdays.
For her part, it’s not surprising that Alinejad would end up clashing with the hard-line regime. She was a a rebel from an early age, starting at the kitchen table where she would butt heads with her fundamentalist father. He was a member of the Basij, a paramilitary force that, like the morality police, defends the strict social codes swept in after the 1979 Iranian revolution, including the law that makes it a crime for a female above the age of puberty to be without a hijab in public.
By her 20s, Alinejad had accumulated a record of resisting and criticizing the regime, starting in high school when she was arrested for her role in underground student activities. Later, as a political journalist, she ran afoul of conservative parliamentarians, not only for her dogged reporting but for her habit of allowing a few strands of hair to slip out of her hijab or a flicker of her forearm to peek out from her gown. An expose on corruption among the lawmakers eventually got Alinejad banned from covering the parliament. She continued to rile feathers in a column at a reformist newspaper, criticizing then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. She left Iran to study in the U.K. after that, but returned to Iran in 2009 to cover the election. However, like many Iranian journalists during that time, she was harassed by security forces. Convinced she would face arrest in Iran, she went back to the U.K., but that didn’t stop her journalism. She interviewed families of protesters who had been killed in the political demonstrations, and that reporting made going back to her home country impossible without risking imprisonment, and possibly worse. Not even the reformists gave her their full support as her stances went further than they were ready for.
“The reformists didn’t want to overthrow the whole regime. … I was cast off and abandoned by senior reformist leaders. Now, going back to Iran looked even more uncertain,” Alinejad wrote in her recently released memoir, “The Wind in My Hair.”
But as much as the Iranian regime has tried, it hasn’t been able to dampen Alinejad’s influence. She has become a celebrity, not to mention a clearinghouse for all sorts of protest videos. Her audience reach, based on video views, rivals media companies in Iran.
“For 40 years the government of Iran, they had state media, television, newspaper; they had guns and bullets. They have money, power, prison. They have everything,” she says. “[With] mobile phones and social media like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, now we can be as much seen and heard as a president, our supreme leader, our foreign minister.”
Every Tuesday after taping her human rights program for the Persian service of the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, she prepares herself to pull an all-nighter starting at midnight. That’s when her mobile phone lights up with incoming videos and photos of Iranian women and men who have decided to join the #WhiteWednesday campaign that week. Protesters upload their videos and message them directly to Alinejad. She then sends the videos to a network of helpers around the world who translate them into English and blur faces to protect identities if necessary. Moments after she posts a video, hundreds of views and comments pop up. We witnessed one video she posted receive half a million views and several thousand comments within a couple of hours. The video showed a young woman being thrown into a police van for a hijab violation; in the background another young woman’s voice comforts her and says, “They are not worth your tears.” At last count, 2.6 million people had watched the video, and the post received more than 12,000. The week of Sotoudeh’s arrest, Alinejad received even more videos than usual.
Being forced to wear the hijab “is like being buried alive,” one Iranian woman, who requested that her name not be used, told Yahoo News. Speaking through a video messaging app, the 20-something woman was seated in a car on a public street in Tehran, her headscarf on her lap, as her striking face looked straight at the phone camera through curtains of long, lustrous brown locks.
“We will get this right back from the government,” she said forcefully. “They cannot stop us, and they cannot … put us quiet anymore. Because we are awake, and we know what we want and what to do.”
The woman was one of the first to send a video to the #WhiteWednesdays campaign, and Alinejad knows it is the persistence of women like her that is propelling the movement. Ghaemi says there are “probably tens of thousands” of women doing what Alinejad has been doing within Iran, and separate, overlapping networks have sprung forth calling for an end to forced hijab.
“The regime’s security forces have been very successful in … not allowing them to come together,” says Ghaemi. “But all the seeds of a cohesive movement are there. The moment that gate opens, there will be floods of mass protests.”
Alinejad receives videos from women across the generational spectrum. There is even a “men in hijab” protest, started by husbands who wanted to stand in solidarity with their wives, sisters and mothers against forced hijab. Politicians and even some clergy in Iran may quietly support the movement. A female member of the Iranian Parliament, Nahid Tajeddin, tweeted in early March: “The Girls of Revolution St are the same girls who have been stopped behind the gates of gender discrimination in university enrollment quotas, in the workplace, in political participation, in getting government management posts, in sports arenas, in performing live music on stage.”
Earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani’s office released a 2014 government survey showing that nearly half of all Iranians believed wearing a hijab should be a choice, not a mandate. The release of the report alone may indicate that the relatively moderate Rouhani was opening the issue up for debate.
But the hard-liners are unmoved, including Alinejad’s own father. It’s a sore subject, and she mostly declined to speak about their fraught relationship on the record. She did recount to us the time when her father ran into her on a street not wearing her chador and spat on her, but she refrains from saying much else. Even as it pains her to know he may never come around to see her perspective, she is fiercely protective of him.
“My father is a true example of those people who [are] brainwashed by the Islamic Republic of Iran,” she says. “So I do my best to convince him that I want to be my true self. I love you, but I don’t want to follow your lifestyle.”
For her continued role in the movement, Alinejad has faced not only alienation, but at times death threats. One particularly gruesome threat recently warned that the Basij would “cut out my tongue and slash my breasts before killing me,” she recalled. She’s had vile lies spread about her by the Iranian regime. In one piece of propaganda, Iranian authorities claimed on state television that Alinejad had been gang raped while she was under the influence of drugs. The false story was planted after Alinejad launched My Stealthy Freedom. Alinejad says the smear campaign was meant to shame and discredit her.
“It’s a cause we both believe in,” says Alinejad’s husband, journalist Kambiz Foroohar. “We know that such threats are part of the price that we pay.”
Alinejad followed Foroohar as his career took him from the U.K. to the U.S., and she now stages her weekly rebellions from their Brooklyn home.
“I’m hugely proud of what she is doing and also in awe of how smart she is in figuring out the angles of the campaign, what’s the best way of generating the movements, how she’s pushed this campaign all by herself independently,” Foroohar says. “What she has done in the past four years is more than what had been achieved in Iran over the past 40 years in raising the issue of this particular cause.”
Alinejad’s strength belies the grief she’s dealt with since leaving her family in Iran nine years ago. As we make our way through a crowded subway station, Alinejad spots an elderly woman in a hijab and shouts, “Oh my God! That lady looks like my mother!” She rushes toward the stunned woman without hesitation and tells her she hasn’t seen her mother, except on video, in years. The woman smiles, immediately warming to Alinejad, and they embrace. It is clear that she misses her family and her country despite its constraints. Seeing the occasional woman wearing the hijab in New York elicits a completely different sentiment than seeing the ubiquitous head covering in Iran.
“I take pictures when I see women here wearing hijab and I send it to my mom and say, ‘Show it to dad. Tell him women are allowed to choose what they want to wear.’” She adds, “We are fighting for freedom of choice.”
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