When Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and human rights activist living in exile in Brooklyn, started her online campaign two years ago encouraging women in her home country to post photos of themselves in public without their headscarves, it was a powerful statement for gender equality.
At great personal risk, thousands of Iranian women have defied the law and removed their hijabs in defiance.
A movement that celebrates women’s freedoms would seem like an obvious one for public support. But lately in the United States, it’s been a challenge for Alinejad to get active endorsements. Sure, some celebrities have tweeted about her effort. And it’s received a lot of positive international media coverage. But people are afraid to be too vocal, she said, because they don’t want to appear anti-Islamic in the era of Donald Trump.
“The atmosphere that [Trump has] created in the United States put us in trouble as well when we want to talk against Islamic restrictive laws. Because people now don’t want to touch the sensitive issue of compulsory hijab because they think it’s a cultural issue and they don’t want to be seen as [aligned with] Donald Trump,” she said in a recent interview. “They want to stand with minorities here. A Barbie wearing a headscarf can make news. In the U.S., it shows you’re tolerant, you’re open-minded, you’re not like Donald Trump.”
But to Alinejad, her effort has never been about being anti-hijab or anti-Islam. Her parents are religious. Her mother proudly covers her head. It’s about giving women the freedom to choose either way.
She has a dream that one day her mother may visit her in the United States and they can walk side by side, her mother in her hijab, and not have to worry about Trump wanting to kick her mother out of the country. And she dreams that she can return to Iran, where she surely would be arrested, and walk shoulder-to-shoulder with her mother, her hair flowing freely, without fear of getting in trouble.
“It’s two extremes — and women in the middle are stuck because if we talk loud against Islamic restrictive laws, then people think we’re supporting Islamaphobia,” she said. “But if we keep silent then we have to forget about our own identity and obey all the discriminatory laws.”
Alinejad has never been one to sit quietly on the sidelines.
Alinejad, who grew up in a rural village, left Iran before the bitter presidential elections there in 2009. She was well known for challenging the government in her reporting, and she had defied Iranian law by pursuing an interview with the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama. The White House invited her to attend a roundtable with Obama in Egypt, which she saw as a first step to a one-on-one exclusive with him, she said. But before she was set to leave, the Iranian government confiscated her passport for several weeks — long enough for her to miss the meeting — and interrogated her about her plans.
Only when she swore she would no longer try to interview Obama did she get her passport back. She didn’t give up that particular dream, and she received a journalist visa to come to the United States. But political tensions were high in Iran, and it didn’t seem to be diplomatically prudent for Obama to do the interview. Her visa expired and she moved to London. She returned to New York two years ago, now married to an Iranian American.
Living here in the West, she wears her hair wild and curly, as if its volume is itself a statement of freedom.
Her movement began almost accidentally, with a photo she posted of herself running on a London street.
“Every time I run in a free country and feel the wind through my hair it reminds me of when my hair was hostage to the Iranian government,” she wrote.
Then the next day she posted another. This time it was an old photo from 2008 when she was still in Iran and had a stolen moment outdoors without her hijab. You have to create your own secret moments of freedom, she wrote. She asked Iranian women to share theirs.
And they did: Thousands of Iranian women posing in public without their hijabs, at risk of being arrested if seen. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, it has been illegal for a woman not to cover her head. Recently there has been a crackdown by the “morality police.” Alinejad was once arrested for walking with her brother when her headscarf was too loose, and then faced an interrogation about why she was walking with a man who wasn’t her husband.
She called her campaign “My Stealthy Freedom.” It has more than 1 million fans on Facebook.
Then last month, Alinejad photoshopped a hijab on the head of the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif and posted it on Instagram. He had been asked by a female politician during a trip to France why people who visit Iran must wear the hijab. He said tourists do not mind because they respect the culture. Alinejad was furious. “Compulsion cannot be a part of our culture,” she said.
In the caption with the picture of the covered Zarif, she asked him: “Do you feel insulted? Like this is not your true self? You feel this is strange or weird?”
“This is the same way we have been feeling for our whole lives,” she said. “Those women who do not believe in hijab. For years and years, since the age of 7, hijab has been like someone taking my identity away from me. And every morning when I go out I have to be someone else.”
She received a message from an Iranian man who, after seeing her post, tried on a hijab to see how it would feel. It was humorous at first, he said, but soon he felt humiliated at the thought of having to go out in public wearing it. She asked if she could share his thoughts and a photo of him in the hijab on social media. Once she did, her inbox was flooded with photos of men in hijab. In some of the most powerful images, they are posed beside an uncovered female.
Alinejad has given Iranian women this public platform, a place to defy authority. Because of her outspokenness against the government, she has endured harassment, death threats and defamation. Quotes attributed to her that she never said appear online. Iranian State television reported falsely that she had been raped in London, she said.
And now, some attack her on social media for providing ammunition for Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.
But none of that deters her. Alinejad says she won’t be silenced about the issue of women’s rights. She lived too many years being silenced in Iran.
“When you give power to ordinary people it feels really good,” she said. “Because I’m coming from a small village, and we never had the chance to be heard.”
Want to read more news about inspiring people and ideas? Sign up for the Saturday Inspired Life newsletter.
Read more from Inspired Life: