September 22, 2018

Journalist Tells Hair-Raising Tale of Defying Iranian Regime

“The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran” by Masih Alinejad (with Kambiz Foroohar) (Little, Brown) is, at once, a haunting and highly intimate family memoir and a bold political manifesto composed by an eyewitness to the agonies that have befallen Iran over the last four decades and an active participant in the struggle to set the country free. 

Alinejad, who describes herself only half-jokingly as “a troublemaker and an infamous Iranian journalist,” writes with self-evident pleasure about the village in the province of Mazandaran in northern Iran where she was born in 1976. “I’m the proud daughter of Ghomikola,” she writes. “Mazandaranis, or Mazanis, as the people are affectionately called, are proud of their long history of independence, which predates Islam. We have our own dialect, Mazani or Tabari, and nothing gives me more pleasure, now that I live in the West, than to find a fellow Mazani and speak in my local tongue.” 

Her memoir fairly glows with fond memories of her homeland and her beloved family, and she conjures up sights, sounds and smells that make her memories come fully alive. Rich people in her village lived in brick houses, but  “[our] house was modest and made out of mud.” To make repairs, her father — whom the family called “AghaJan” (“Dear Sir”) — would spackle the walls with a paste made of cow dung, mud, straw and rice husks. “After it had dried, AghaJan and my brothers would paint the walls, but that didn’t kill the smell.” Even today, as a resident of Brooklyn, N.Y., “I associate the smell of cow dung with the smell of home.”

She was only 2 years old when the Islamic Revolution brought down the monarchy that had ruled Persia for 2,000 years and replaced it with a stern Islamic theocracy. “Even to this day, almost forty years after the revolution, there are debates with many Iranian families about whether my father’s generation made a mistake in overthrowing the Shah and his Western-inspired ideas … to bring in a regime that looked to the seventh century for moral and legal guidance,” she explains. For the courageous woman she grew up to be, however, it was nothing less than a catastrophe: “In the Islamic Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability.”  And the symbol of her oppression was her beautiful head of hair, abundant and curly.  

Masih Alinejad’s memoir shows us what the politics of the Islamic Republic look like at ground level, where she carefully navigated through the treacherous waters of an authoritarian state.

“My hair was part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it,” Alinejad writes. “When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf.”

Starting in adolescence, the high-spirited young woman began to fight back. At school, she participated in acts of youthful protest such as arranging bowls of water so they would spill on the clerics as they entered the school and scrawling political graffiti on the walls. “If hijab is a good thing, then men should wear it also,” she told her religious teacher. “Some men are so ugly that they do need to be covered up to protect us women.”

Later, as she was befriended by fellow dissidents, Alinejad discovered that acts of disobedience, no matter how mild, carried dire consequences in the Islamic Republic. When the security service showed up to arrest her fiancé, AghaJan — a dedicated supporter of the regime — pointed at his daughter and instructed the officer: “Arrest this one, too.” When she ended up in a jail cell, she observed “the number of prayers on the walls to a God that had abandoned those who had scrawled them.” After a coerced confession and a pro forma trial, she was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes. The prison sentence was for the political crimes, explained the judge, and the whipping was “for mixing with boys.”

The sentence was suspended on the condition that Alinejad demonstrate her compliance with Islamic law for a period for a period of three years. While she shows us how she succeeded in staying out of prison, Alinejad never abandoned her principles. She reinvented herself as a journalist and a broadcaster, and her memoir shows us what the politics of the Islamic Republic look like at ground level, where she carefully navigated through the treacherous waters of an authoritarian state.  

Some of the perils were laughable, as when she was suspended from covering the Majlis, the legislature of the Islamic Republic, because she dared to wear red shoes on the job. Other perils were deeply fearful as when she was summoned before the prosecutor general in Tehran whose nickname was “Butcher of the Press.” “So, who is behind you?” he demanded. “Make a confession and I’ll go easy on you, I promise.” The interrogation ended with a stalemate: “My job is to protect the revolution,” he said. “My job is to protect the people,” she retorted. She stayed out of the interrogation cells, but she also was banned from covering the Majlis.

Alinejad achieved a measure of fame in Iran — or notoriety, as she puts it — for her daring articles and books. But she knew she remained at risk, and eventually she received an ominous warning from a high-ranking official: “Leave now, before it’s too late.” So she devised a way to put herself beyond the reach of the Islamic Republic, first in London and then in the United States. At a particularly stirring moment in her heroic account, she describes how she addressed a protest rally that was organized by the Iranian community in San Francisco. 

“I’ve been jailed, beaten, expelled … but I didn’t lose hope,” she told the crowd. “For thirty years we were afraid. Now it is the Islamic Republic who must fear.”

For the reader who is curious about how one remarkable woman survived the dangers, hurts and sorrows of an especially challenging life, “The Wind in My Hair” tells a tense, dramatic and ultimately inspiring story. And for the reader who wonders what life is really like in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the same book is full of hard facts and shocking disclosures.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.