Masih Alinejad

WOMEN WE LOVE

The woman fighting for Iranian women’s right to freedom

Iranian-born journalist Masih Alinejad (Photo: Facebook)

Masih Alinejad, founder of My Stealthy Freedom, is leading the fight for Iranian women to remove the hijab and to live without fear. She speaks to Kat Lister

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By Kat Lister on

“Did you ever hear this expression?” Masih Alinejad asks me over Skype from her home in New York. “All girls in Iranian school hear it,” she says, her voice a tangle of frustration and fearlessness. “We are told that if you show your hair, then you’re going to be hung by that hair in hell.”

On 8 March in 1979, a month after an Iranian revolution that overthrew the monarchy, more than 100,000 women assembled on the streets of the capital, Tehran, to demonstrate against the new Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab ruling. Alinejad was, in her own words, “just a babbling two-year-old toddler” when veiling became obligatory and laws were rewritten curtailing women’s freedoms. “The revolution changed much, but for women it was many steps backward,” Alinejad writes in her new memoir, The Wind In My Hair. “In the Islamic Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability.”

If the name Masih Alinejad fails to ring bells, the words “My Stealthy Freedom” might sound familiar. In 2014, the Iranian-born journalist and activist founded an online movement dedicated to posting images of women defiantly unveiling themselves in open spaces across Iran. “I was bombarded with photos of women, so brave, standing next to the morality police, in busy streets in Tehran,” she tells me. Frustrated women, empowered by Alinejad’s activism, whipped off their scarves on shingle beaches, in empty cornfields, down bustling urban streets and on busy motorways. Within three weeks, the Facebook page had 350,000 fans; in 2018, that number has nearly tripled to more than a million.

“These women are fed up by any kind of religious interference in their life and they’re just looking for a platform to stand up against this brutality,” Alinejad says, as we discuss her campaign’s astonishing impact. My Stealthy Freedom’s call to arms has now become a global phenomenon, making headlines around the world. In 2017, it hit the news when Alinejad launched a “White Wednesday” campaign, encouraging protesters to wave white shawls as a symbol of women’s struggle. Their actions can have devastating consequences: in February this year, I reported that 29 women had been arrested as a result of removing their veils. “These are the Rosa Parks of Iran,” Alinejad says. “And I am their voices.”

Alinejad’s own personal life story is just as radical and rebellious. Born in the small village of Ghomikola, in northern Iran, the 41-year-old was politically active from a young age – even as a teenager, she was arrested and imprisoned. At the age of 19, she gave birth to her son, Pouyan, and one week before her 24th birthday, her husband divorced her. Due to a patriarchal judiciary that gives superior legal status to the male head of household, she lost custody of her four-year-old child. Alinejad had a poor rural upbringing and lacked qualifications, but her desperation quickly turned to defiance – and a journalistic career as a political reporter at reformist-leaning newspaper, Hambastegi. Eight years later, Alinejad’s aptitude for free-thinking reporting earned her a near-miss interview with Barack Obama and an expulsion from Iran. Which brings us up to speed: in 2018, the New York suburb of Brooklyn is currently her home.

My dream is that one day we have a regime that allows women like me, who want to choose their own lifestyle, to be free and live in their own homeland

“My mum used to tell me that any time you see the darkness, if you let your fear win then it will devour you,” Alinejad says, matter-of-factly. “What can I do – be a victim, be miserable? Or use my mum’s tactic? Open my eyes as wide as I can.” Now exiled over 6,000 miles from her homeland, Alinejad is intent on opening Western eyes, too – and tackling the misconceptions that still distort our understanding of Iranian women.

And Western misunderstanding, I’m told, is rife. When Alinejad left Iran, she was surprised to see her interviews accompanied with images of full burqas, not hijab (“they didn’t even know that Iranian women don’t cover their face”). She was even asked if she had the right to drive and vote, when interviewers confused the Islamic Republic with Saudi Arabia. “What they didn’t understand is that, in Iran, women make up more than 60 per cent of university students and what they are fighting for is their dignity,” she says, explaining that Iran is a country that only recently rolled back women’s freedom. And, in Iran, women are resisting. “Women are not allowed to enter football stadiums, but they do; women are not allowed to sing solo, but they sing; women are not allowed to dance, but they dance.” In this sense, they are, in Alinejad’s words, already victorious. This isn’t about the perceived rights and wrongs of hijab – it’s about choice. “Before the revolution, we had the freedom to choose what we wanted to wear, and a law that violates women’s rights can’t be a part of our culture,” she says.

In her book, Alinejad frequently points out that being against compulsory hijab doesn’t make her anti-Islam. Does it get exhausting, reiterating this point? “I get this question a lot in the West – ‘Are you against Islam?’ – and it’s beyond sad,” she answers. “I have nothing against Islam, but all the Islamic laws in Iran are against me. From the age of seven, all the Sharia laws are against me. They don’t let me be my true self.” Even when Alinejad was free to unveil, it was a long psychological process for her to reconcile herself with this freedom. “When you grow up in a family where you’re forced to wear hijab from the age of seven, then, wrongly, you think that this piece of cloth is part of your identity,” she says. “So, when you want to take it off, it’s like you’re cutting part of your body.” There is a pause; a brief moment to acknowledge the internal conflict after a lifetime of coercion. “It’s not easy,” she admits.

As a child, she envied her little brother’s freedom to run, cycle, jump in the river and – as her memoir extols – to feel the wind in his hair. “My dream is that one day we have a regime that allows women like me, who want to choose their own lifestyle, to be free and live in their own homeland,” she says. “I don’t have any fear – to be in prison, to be killed. The only thing that scares me is to be silent.” She pauses. “I cannot be silent any more.”

@Madame_George

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Iranian-born journalist Masih Alinejad (Photo: Facebook)
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