Masih Alinejad: The Iranian-American activist who gives voice to women

In an interview with Dhaka Tribune, the exiled Iranian journalist talked about how her social media campaign has ignited a fire within Iranian women to defy the repressive laws in their country

All she wanted to do was to let her hair loose and feel the wind in her hair. Now, her long curly locks have become a symbol of rebellion, resistance, and freedom. 

Masih Alinejad has had to cover her hair since she was a 7-year-old girl in the tiny Iranian village of Ghomi Kola. She did not have any idea about feminism, freedom of speech or politics. All she wanted was to have the same freedom as her brother. 

Alinejad has always been a rule-breaker and had to face enormous adversity in her fight for freedom of choice. Her rebellion against the government landed her into prison when she was just 19 years old and pregnant with her fiancé’s baby. While she was working as a journalist in Iran, a male politician threatened to punch her face because a few strands of her hair were out of her head scarf. She went into exile in London and then moved to New York eight years ago.    

While in London, she posted a photo on her Facebook account with her hair unveiled and called for photos of women with their hair flying free in Iran, where it is a punishable offence for them to remove a headscarf in public. Subsequently, the My Stealthy Freedom campaign against forced wearing of hijabs spread like wildfire and drew global attention.  

Alinejad has more than seven million social media followers around the world.

In an interview with Dhaka Tribune, the exiled Iranian journalist, author and activist talked about how her social media campaign has ignited a fire within Iranian women to defy the repressive laws in their country and inspired many women around the world who have been forced to wear hijabs. 

Do you think forced hijab is a political tool in Iran to subjugate women’s freedom? 

I strongly believe that compulsory hijab is just a tool in the hands of the Islamic republic of Iran to control the whole of society through women. We had a revolution more than 40 years ago. Right after the revolution, the Islamic republic of Iran took women’s bodies hostage. They wrote the most visible Islamic ideology on our body. This has become one of the main pillars of the Islamic republic of Iran. When we fight against compulsory hijab, we don’t really fight against a small piece of cloth. We are challenging one of the main pillars of the Islamic republic. That is why they are really scared and want to suppress our campaign. 

We women, all around the world, it doesn't matter if we live in India, Bangladesh, the Middle East or the West, we still need to say no, we still need to stand up  for our own rights  and we still need to launch our own revolution. My book, The Wind in My Hair,  actually shows you how a woman from a tiny village started her own revolution and is now leading a movement. And women are joining my campaign to say no to all the restrictive laws.

What does freedom mean to you? What do you mean by ‘my stealthy freedom’? 

Freedom never comes with any adjective. But in Iran, freedom became stealthy. Freedom became something you have to hide from the government. After the revolution, the government stole our freedom. Before the revolution, women were allowed to be singers and judges. They were allowed to choose whatever they wanted to wear. Women were allowed to dance in the street. They were allowed to enter the stadium to participate in any kind of sports. After the Islamic revolution, all those women who wanted to dance, sing, unveil their hair, went underground. Their freedom became secret and stealthy. I launched My Stealthy Freedom campaign because I wanted women to show off their stealthy freedom.  I wanted all the women to talk about the activities that they were doing in secret.  Being a free woman in Iran means that you have to break the law every day.  We have been told we are not allowed to sing, dance, or show our hair. But we do it every day. That’s why I launched this campaign so that women can stick together and talk about their stealthy freedom out loud. Because when you talk about it it’s not stealthy anymore.  Through your disobedience you find your own agency. You will find out that you are not a victim anymore. You are a warrior. 

What inspired you to start My Stealthy Freedom campaign? 

My campaign was born because of a picture. I posted a picture of mine on Facebook, taken on a beautiful street in London. And I captioned that I felt the wind in my hair. It just reminded me of the time when my hair was hostage to the Iranian government. That picture went viral on Facebook. Soon after I found another picture of mine which was taken in Iran, driving unveiled in public. I am a woman and I did not have freedom of choice in Iran. But I knew how to create my own freedom. And I was sure there were millions of Iranian women who did not believe in hijab, and they have their own pictures. They create their moments of freedom. I asked them if they wanted to share them with me. Then I was bombarded with pictures and videos. They said they wanted to take off their scarves and wanted to talk about their freedom.  That is why I launched the campaign. 

What would you say to people who think protesting against the compulsory hijab is a western concept? 

Compulsory hijab has never been part of Iranian culture. Before the revolution we had the freedom of what we wanted to wear. The politicians are lying to the world by saying that the dress code is part of our culture. Here we are talking about compulsion. All we want to say to the government is: Leave women alone. They are mature enough to make decisions about their own bodies. Once I put a headscarf on the Iranian foreign minister’s head, and I asked him how he felt now. Do you feel that you are being insulted?  This is the way we women have felt for more than 40 years.    

Women were arrested for protesting against forced hijab. Are you concerned about the My Stealthy Freedom campaigners in Iran? 

There was a 24-year-old woman in Iran who joined my campaign  and was arrested. I got really scared because she sent a video to me when she was in prison. But as soon as she got out of prison, she took another video of herself in front of the detention center, saying, ‘By threatening me, by putting me in prison, you cannot keep me silent. I say no to compulsory hijab louder.’ So that is the true face of Iranian women.  They are aware of the risks, and they know that they are going to fight against restrictive laws. And I am going to be their platform to be heard.  

These women are the Rosa Parks of Iran. They need a platform, and I am here to be their platform. Their videos get several million views. I cannot just say that I am not worried when they are fighting and putting themselves in danger, but we are completing each other. That is my mission.