February 22, 2019

Fighting to Remove Women’s Oppression in Iran

Masih Alinejad

A New York Post columnist called Masih Alinejad, the Iranian-born journalist, author and women’s rights activist, “the woman whose hair frightens Iran.”

That’s because she has garnered millions of followers thanks to a campaign she started on Facebook and Instagram called “My Stealthy Freedom,” which encourages Iranian women to defy the country’s compulsory hijab law.

The law was passed after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and forces all females to cover their hair from the age of seven, or face imprisonment, lashings or even death.

Alinejad, 42, launched her campaign in 2014 from New York, where she now lives in self-imposed exile (she previously lived in Europe), and today “My Stealthy Freedom” has more than 2 million Instagram followers and 1.2 million followers on Facebook, where Alinejad posts images and videos sent to her by Iranian women, showing them removing their hijabs. 

Her memoir, “The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran,” was published last year. 

Alinejad, a Muslim who left Iran in 2009 and was granted asylum here in 2014, has been an activist since her youth. As a high school student, she was expelled for asking the “wrong” kinds of questions. At 19, she was beaten and arrested for distributing anti-government pamphlets. As a journalist reporting on the Iranian parliament, she was chased out of rooms by government officials for not covering her hair properly, and eventually lost her job. As a columnist for a popular magazine, she came under fire for criticizing then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his hardline followers. 

In May 2017, after President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election, she organized an initiative called “White Wednesdays,” in which thousands of Iranian women tied white headscarves to sticks and waved them in the streets as a form of protest. During the post-election turmoil, a photo of a young Iranian woman waving a white headscarf became an iconic image of anti-government protests and women’s oppression in Iran. The woman was sentenced to 20 years in prison before being released in early 2018.

Alinejad also organized an initiative called “My Camera Is My Weapon,” which asked Iranian women to film themselves being harassed on the street by the country’s “morality police.”

On Jan. 29, Alinejad spoke at the sixth annual Persian American Women’s Conference in Los Angeles, where she was interviewed by the Journal. 

“As a child, I used to watch the clerics on television with such fear. Now, it is they who watch me on their TVs or devices, because from my pain I found my power.” — Masih Alinejad

Asked how she reconciled her campaigns with putting Iranian women at risk, Alinejad recounted the story of a 24-year-old woman in Iran who sent her a message saying she had been arrested for removing her hijab in public during a “White Wednesdays” protest.

“I was crying a lot because I knew that she was engaged to be married,” Alinejad said, “but as soon as she was freed, she published a video of herself in which she held up her arrest warrant, condemned compulsory hijab, and took off her headscarf again.”

According to Alinejad, the woman then posted on Instagram that while that protester was in jail, her interrogator tried to get a false confession out of her, accusing her of “working for Masih Alinejad.” The woman turned to her interrogator and said, “I’m not working for Masih Alinejad. She is working for me. I don’t have a voice inside Iran.”

Despite her massive following, Alinejad said she does not believe she is leading a movement. “Women like that 24-year-old [woman] are the most prominent members of this civil disobedience movement,” she said. “They are leading from within. These are brave, mature women who know the risks they’re taking and, to me, they’re like suffragists. They’re not waiting for the compulsory hijab law to be removed. They remove it themselves because they strongly believe that through civil disobedience, change will come to Iran.”

Nonetheless, Alinejad also has been making inroads in the United States, having met with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Feb. 4 to discuss Iran’s human rights violations.
“I want human rights to be the main pillar of negotiation between the U.S. and the Islamic Republic,” she told the Journal. 

Alinejad continues to make her voice heard on the Voice of America Persian News television program called “Tablet,” despite the fact that the Iranian regime has called her names ranging from an MI6 agent to a whore. 

“When I look at my life, I cannot believe it,” she said. “As a child, I used to watch the clerics on television with such fear. Now, it is they who watch me on their TVs or devices, because from my pain I found my power.”


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and the former executive director of 30 Years After.