Masih Alinejad has endured her father’s wrath, her mother’s grief, arrest, slander, separation from her son, and ultimately exile in her fight for women’s equality. But when she learnt, last month, that her sister had appeared on Iran state television and condemned her activism against compulsory hijab, the women’s rights activist admitted she cried for a whole day.
This wasn’t the first time Alinejad had been denounced on Iranian state television.
Four years ago, when she fled Iran and sought safety in England, Alinejad learnt that Iran state television was running a false story of her being raped in London.
“I knew my parents, who are from a small village, would feel ashamed. My mum was crying and asked what are we going to do?” she said in a recent phone interview with HuffPost India.
In her book, The Wind In My Hair: My Fight For Freedom In Modern Iran, Alinejad writes about her extraordinary journey challenging tradition and gender discrimination in Iran and the price that comes with demanding freedom. From the time she growing up in the small village of Ghomikola, to when she was a politics reporter in Tehran, Alinejad could never make her peace with the hijab. Now, 41 and living in exile in New York, Alinejad is leading campaigns like My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays to protest compulsory hijab in Iran.
In an hour-long conversation, Alinejad spoke about the repression in Iranian society, going back to when she was incarcerated as a teenager for joining a group that urged dissent in post-revolutionary Iran, to the recent arrest of 17-year-old, Maedeh Hojabri, for sharing videos of herself dancing on Instagram.
Did Maedeh’s confession, saying that dancing is a crime, remind you of the time when you were forced to make a confession after being arrested?
No one calls it confession in Iran. They call it interview. That is how they brainwash society by telling them that after we arrest them, we educate them instead of using the word interrogate, and now they regret, instead of saying that we made them do false confession. There is no other way to get out of prison. When I was made to do it, I was 19-years-old and I wanted to be free.
Has anything changed between your confession and Maedeh’s confession?
When people ask me why have you become really radical and you don’t believe in reformists, I want to give them an example. Here you are. My confession was 20 years ago and still a young girl, a teenager, is being forced to do confession. We had hope. We thought reformists would change society, but politics and the dictatorship in Iran has never changed. I lost hope on reformists. When I look back at my life, and now at Maedeh, the only thing that has changed is the bravery. These women are being supported by the media and people around the world.
A woman who took off her headscarf in public was reported missing. Another one was sentenced to 20 years in prison for wearing hijab. Isn’t that too high a price?
The first woman, Vida Movahdi, who put her headscarf on a stick, is missing and that is the most horrifying story in Iran. A woman protested against compulsory hijab in a peaceful way and now she is missing. Nobody knows where she is. This is really terrifying. Shapark is part of the White Wednesdays campaign. So, for one year, she was walking in the streets and filming herself. When she saw Vida Movahdi was missing, she asked other women of White Wednesdays to join the campaign to raise awareness about her.
What scares the government? Shapark got arrested, came out on bail and she joined White Wednesdays again. What scares the government is one woman saying I’m fearless. Although you arrest me, although I’m free on bail, I’m not going to give up. They are scared of the women who will never give up. They sentenced her to 20 years to kill the campaign and to scare the other women of White Wednesday campaign. It means an 18 years suspended prison sentence. You go to prison for two years, but when you get out you won’t be able to publish a photo of yourself on social media. You won’t be able to walk unveiled on the streets.
The first woman, Vida Movahdi, who put her headscarf on a stick, is missing and that is the most horrifying story in Iran.
You had withstood slander as a political journalist covering the Majlis, but you were still devastated when you learnt of the false story rape story.
The thing that really upset me was the mindset of the government. They still think that in the 21st century, if they want to discredit a woman, they have to say that she was raped. They still think that if you are a woman and you are raped, it’s your fault. It’s beyond sad. They don’t want to criticize my opinion, they don’t want to confront my belief or thoughts, they attack my sexuality. This government can create a lie and say Massi was raped and show that on Iranian TV in a happy way, in a satisfied way. That makes me sad.
Why do you think women in the political sphere, politicians, journalists, activists, are threatened with sexual violence?
We live in a traditional society. You have this in India as well. Women are counted as second class citizens and the government uses this. They know that if they attack a women’s sexuality, they name and shame them by saying you were raped, it would work in society. Not everyone believes it, but there are a still a huge number of religious and traditional people who would buy this argument. The government in Iran uses this tactic to attack women rights activists, journalists, and now even ordinary people walking unveiled, I call them citizen activists. The men attacking them say you are a whore, you are a prostitute, you deserve to be raped. The government of Iran relies on this part of society. They create fear in society. They scare young people, women who want to join the campaign, by using this term.
The men attacking them say you are a whore, you are a prostitute, you deserve to be raped.
You rely on social media to counter that message.
The atmosphere has changed because of social media. I cried because I knew my parents, who live in a small village, they would feel ashamed. So, I wrote about my feelings, I did everything to explain rather than keeping the pain inside me. When I shared it, a huge number of people joined the campaign. They said if you call Massi, a whore, a prostitute, then call us prostitutes as well because we are fighting for our freedom. Speaking about your pain, about your struggle, about your story empowers you. I encourage other women through my campaign to be their own story tellers.
People ask me why do you care so much to create a hashtag for Maedeh or for the women arrested for removing hijab, I say it is because I’ve been through all these things when I was a teenager. I was silent because I had no one to support me. The whole world was silent. Now when I see Maedeh and other people, I see myself, and I think that this is the time we can be together, we can get united, and we can name and shame those people.
I was silent because I had no one to support me. The whole world was silent.
Your stories on corruption in the Iran government appeared on the front page of the newspaper. You also faced backlash and eventually forced to leave the majlis. How do you explain the freedom of expression and the lack of it?
Iranian politics is complicated. When they want people to participate in an election, they have to give more freedom to people, give more freedom to journalists and this is the way they show that we have democracy in Iran. So, we have this freedom of expression during election.
I was excited like millions of others at this freedom of expression, but then what happened. The Iranian government stole the election and killed over 100 protestors on the street. I myself interviewed the families of 57 people who were killed, who were sent to prison and tortured to death. Every story had a mother behind it, a father behind it, and they talked about how they lost their loved ones. They killed more than a hundred people. They arrested thousands of people. Millions live in exile because they have criticized the government.
Some people in Iran say as a joke: Yes, we have freedom of speech in Iran. Yes, we have freedom of expression in Iran, but we don’t have freedom after speech in Iran.
Yes, we have freedom of expression in Iran, but we don’t have freedom after speech in Iran.
You were able to publish several stories on corruption before the lawmakers decided to remove you from the majlis.
They know that society is angry. They actually need some of the critical journalists to calm the anger in society. But they want to have balance. They measure the freedom of expression that they give to journalists. When you cross the redline then that’s it. It doesn’t matter who you are, a dancer or the former president of Iran, they are going to punish you if you cross the line.
Our president and our foreign minister always claim that Iran is a free country and we have freedom of expression because we have free election. But just ask a simple question, if Iran is a free country, where is the former prime minister of Iran, Mousavi. He is under house arrest. Where is Karroubi, the former spokesperson, he is under house arrest. Where is the former president of Iran, Banisadr, he was forced to flee the country and is living in exile in Paris. And right now, Khatami is not allowed to appear on television or on social media or do any kind of social activity. But guess what? During the election, Khatami is allowed to give interviews and criticize the hardliners. Why? Because during the election, they need freedom of expression to encourage people to vote. It’s complicated.
Why fight compulsory hijab, why not just the hijab?
I myself am against hijab, but as a campaigner I’m against compulsory hijab. When I used to wear hijab, I was brainwashed. I was wearing hijab from age seven. So, you grow up with this piece of cloth and you think it is part of your body and part of your identity. It is not easy to take it off overnight. I don’t want to attack people who are still wearing it, I want to invite them to think about it, debate about it and talk about it. The time I was wearing hijab and claiming it was my choice, it was not my choice, I was brainwashed. When you are brainwashed, you think it is your choice. The philosophy behind hijab, it was made by men. I have to wear hijab because men cannot control themselves, I couldn’t accept that. But attacking my mother, who wears hijab or my sister, who wears hijab, that is what the Iranian government does to us. I just want women to talk about it.
And by compulsory hijab, I just don’t mean the law, I mean hijab being forced by fathers, brothers, by men, by society, by emotional pressure. Some people might think that if they take off hijab, they might lose family moral support. And that is important as well. They don’t want to lose family. They don’t want to lose their community. It’s a complicated issue.
You grow up with this piece of cloth and you think it is part of your body and part of your identity. It is not easy to take it off overnight.
In your book, you write of your time in Lebanon, when you briefly take off your hijab for the first time, you hesitate so much before doing it.
That is the process I was talking about. They brainwash you and you grow up with this fear inside you. When I came to the West, I experienced another pressure. My identity, my family, the hijab was a link between me and my family and my community. Am I going to lose them? Am I going to break my parent’s hearts? This small piece of cloth is not as small as you see.
In your book, you write about the time when you photoshopped a photo of Iran’s foreign minister Javed Zarif with a headscarf. Would you do that to a photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader?
Definitely, I would do that. The hijab is protected by the Supreme Leader more than the law. He reacted to our campaign saying the women who are taking off the hijab are insignificant. We have so many brave women inside Iran, who challenge the Supreme Leader and they go to prison for it. Why would I keep silent?
Let me give you the bigger picture. For forty years, the Republic of Iran took women’s bodies hostage. I strongly believe the war in Iran, the war between women and the government, is serious. Women are taking their bodies back from the hostage takers. They know that this is the first step to get back their own identity, to get their country back from these men who think that women in the 21st century should be covered up because men cannot control themselves.
For forty years, the Republic of Iran took women’s bodies hostage. Women are taking their bodies back from the hostage takers.
You have talked about the hypocrisy of the West when it comes to the hijab.
When I was growing up in Iran, in a poor family, I would always hear that this is not the right time. When you are poor, you think of money, bread and food. And then we had the revolution, and people said that there are so many bigger problems, don’t talk about it. And then we had war, and people said this is not the right time to talk about women’s rights. Then we had sanctions and people said that if we talk about women’s rights and how rights are being abused, they will use it to apply more sanctions. I left Iran and I came here and found another group that is trying to keep us silent. They say that the Middle East has so many bigger problems, let’s go solve their problems but keep silent about compulsory hijab. I found this as a hypocrisy.
You have spoken against women leaders from Western countries obeying compulsory hijab while visiting Iran.
When I asked them, you have to condemn compulsory hijab, they say that women in the Middle East don’t need to be saved. And then, when you ask them why do you obey compulsory hijab (while visiting Iran), they say that we go to the Middle East to solve bigger problems or they will kick us out from the country. So, you see, they think the Middle East need to be saved by Western feminists who wear hijab, who legitimize discriminatory law. I find this as double standard and hypocrisy. If women inside Iran are risking their lives to challenge discriminatory laws, then if you call yourself a true feminist, you shouldn’t obey and legitimize the same law.
They think the Middle East need to be saved by Western feminists who wear hijab, who legitimize discriminatory law.
Can you explain.
Let me give you an example. If there is a chess tournament in France, and they come up with a law saying any Muslim woman who wants to participate has to take off their hijab. You think the rest of the world would keep silent? No. They would say, shame on you, you should not force a woman to take off the hijab. I want to hear the same from athletes around the world, shame on you, Islamic Republic of Iran, to force a woman to wear hijab to attend a tournament. You say, shame on you for forcing a woman to take off her hijab, but you don’t say, shame on you for forcing a woman to put on the hijab. You are a hypocrite.
We are facing a gender apartheid in the Islamic Republic of Iran. So, you can’t just say it is an internal matter. You shouldn’t downplay a cause when women are getting together to challenge discrimination. You have to challenge it.
Why is the Islamic Republic of Iran so afraid of women and their bodies?
Islamic countries write their ideologies on the bodies of women. If you enter Iran, how will you know this is the Islamic Republic of Iran, through women. The hijab is the most fundamentalist tool for the government to control whole society through women. Islamic governments are scared of women because they know that if women resist Shariah laws then the whole society would rise up. I strongly believe that the government of Iran thinks that when women become brave and remove hijab then that will be the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
What does it mean to live in exile?
I cannot go back to Iran. I cannot travel to see my son in the UK. I lost my Iranian passport when I asked for asylum in England. I got married and came to America, I got two years green card, so then I lost my British travel documents. And because of the travel ban, my green card is being help by the immigration office. They say I have to wait because of this whole chaos. So, I don’t have anything right now. I’m Iranian, American, British, but I have no passports, and this is what it is like to be an immigrant. You carry your home on your shoulders.
Do you know of triple talaq in India?
We have that, talaq, talaq, talaq. We share the pain. That is why we have to be altogether. I strongly believe that Indian activists have a long way to go to educate the whole society and get them all together to understand in the 21st century, this is really backward to give the power to men divorce women like this. Marriage is a two-way road. It cannot be one-way road that benefits men. That isn’t called love and that isn’t called life. That is called slavery. That is why we Iranian women are trying to separate religion from state, religion from politics and religion from our personal lives and personal choice.
Marriage is a two-way road. It cannot be one-way road that benefits men.
In your book, your write about a grandmother who wants her granddaughter to feel the wind in her hair before it greys. Do you feel any closer to ending compulsory hijab?
Yeah, definitely. When the campaign started, people were just sending videos and photos, but look at the campaign now. People walking unveiled, challenging the morality police, telling the police that it is none of your business what I wear. They are fearless. One woman in the campaign called Shima, who was arrested, published her story on her Instagram page. She said the interrogators told her that she was working for Masih and the West and she said – ‘I told my interrogator, no, Masih is working for me.’