The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iranian journalist faces threats, false report of rape after viral Facebook success

Masih Alinejad created The Stealth Freedoms of Iranian Women Facebook page, a place for women to share photos of themselves without veils or head coverings. Courtesy Masih Alinejad
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The Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian Women Facebook page invited women to share photos of themselves with uncovered heads, celebrating non-traditional dress in Iran’s hottest summer months. As of its creation last month, 450,000-plus Facebook users have liked the page, and thousands of women have submitted their photos to journalist and founder Masih Alinejad.

Alinejad, a London-based journalist affiliated with Voice of America’s “On Ten” program, said she expected a backlash from those who oppose Iranian women’s freedom to dress as they choose — but she didn’t expect the story that aired on Iranian state television.

The television report claimed three men raped Masih in a London subway station after she took drugs and undressed herself in public. The report also claims her 17-year-old son was a witness to the rape. Alinejad vehemently denies these allegations, saying they are “imagination.”

“To be mentioned in a ‘news’ report which is so patently fake was just jaw-dropping,” she said. “My first thought was for my parents and how they might feel and hope they would not be shamed in front of their neighbors and friends.”

According to Prisca Orsonneau, head legal counsel for Reporters without Borders, this action is all too believable.

“This is a new trend for the Iranian government: they try to do their best to make a smear campaign against her,” she said. “This is really typical. Their reaction is typical of what the Iranian government does to journalists working abroad.”

After the report aired, dozens of supporters reached out to Alinejad in encouragement of her work for female expression, including Orsonneau and those at Reporters Without Borders.

“Most people offered consolation that the campaign must be really doing some good for the state TV to make up such an attack,” Alinejad said.

One friend created an online petition gathering signatures from journalists in support of legal action on Alinejad’s behalf, and another started a Facebook page, “We Are All Masih” to rally support around the journalist and Stealthy Freedoms.

Alinejad herself responded with a YouTube video. In the video, she is walking around a London Underground station — the same in which the fictional rape had taken place — with her head uncovered. She is singing a song.

“In Iran, I was not allowed to be myself,” Alinejad said of her decision to film a response. “And this video was to say, ‘You just want to hide [the women]’ … And that was my song.”

Several other rumors have swirled around Alinejad in the wake of the media attention surrounding the Stealthy Freedoms Facebook page.

Conservative Iranian TV presenter Vahid Yaminpour took to his own Facebook page to similarly denounce Alinejad and her work with Stealthy Freedoms.

“Masih Alinejad is a whore,” he wrote. “She’s just trying to compensate her psychological (and probably financial) needs by recruiting young women and sharing her notoriety with younger women who are still not prostitutes.”

Detractors claim Alinejad is fabricating the images as a promotion for her own career; they say she demands money for interviews with large media outlets (for the record: Alinejad was not paid for her interview in The Washington Post); and they point to her work in Europe as proof that the Western government is paying her to disavow Iranian traditional dress. All of which Alinejad continues to insist is untrue.

“My mother and sister wear hijab,” Alinejad said. “I respect them. I want [Iran] to respect me.”

Alinejad said she is working with a BBC journalist to independently vet the images in hopes that this will alleviate some of the rumors about the page’s authenticity.

As a direct result of this smear campaign, Alinejad has created hard rules regarding photo submissions to the Stealthy Freedoms page. She said she does this in order to protect the submitters as well as the reputation of the page.

No photos of women under the age of 18. And no photos submitted by men.

“I have to say, ‘I can’t trust that you are the person [in the photo],’” she said. “I have to say, ‘This is a place for women … I have to be careful.’”

She’s also taken to warning the women who send close-up images that the photos could easily be identified by Iran’s “morality police.”

“I always ask, ‘Are you sure you want me to publish this picture? It might get international attention,’” she said. “And if the photo is especially descriptive, or if the camera is particularly close to their faces, I ask them again. Just so they know.”

But despite the attacks and fabricated reports, Alinejad has no plans to discontinue Stealthy Freedoms, and she’s still receiving photo submissions every day. She said the page has become even more popular in wake of the false reports and threats to her safety.

“The women are becoming braver,” she said, pointing to a photo of a woman sitting in a public plaza with her head uncovered.