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Transcript: Global Women’s Summit: Women, Life, Freedom

MS. BROWN: Hello, everybody. I’m Tina Brown.

And, in the middle of so much world turbulence, it's so easy to forget the cauldron of protests that's happening right now in female dissent in Iran. And we're very fortunate to have the two women you just saw in the video, who don't allow us ever to forget.

On my left here is Nazanin Boniadi, an Iranian-born actress, activist, and Amnesty International UK ambassador, who uses her Hollywood platform to focus attention on the extraordinary events in Iran. And my old friend, journalist and activist, Masih Alinejad, who was born and raised in Iran, forced into exile 13 years ago after all the trouble she kept making for the mullahs as a newspaper reporter, and she's since become a social media powerhouse, amplifying the voices of the women protesting in Iran.

So, Masih, for almost a decade, you've been agitating against this regime by challenging its mandatory hijab law. Your message has become really a revolution. Why did this happen now, and why was the death of this one young woman reporter, a young woman as we saw in the film, why is the death of hers so really become a tipping point?

MS. ALINEJAD: Well, hi, everyone.

Before actually getting to answer this question, I really want to actually ask you, everyone, single simple question: Have you ever thought that a small piece of cloth can kill a woman? So that's the answer.

Mahsa, I mean, she was only 22-year-old. She got killed by morality police, by hijab police. If any of you here have no idea what morality police is, there are a bunch of police walking around and telling you, every single of you, cover yourself properly. And if you don't, then you will go to prison or you get lashes or you get killed, like these days in Iran.

Yes, Tina. You actually invited me many times to talk about my campaign, but I remember when I launched the Campaign Against Compulsory Hijab, many people in the West were saying that, you know, Middle East has got so many bigger problems, or on the other hand, people were saying that "This compulsory hijab is part of your culture"--

MS. BROWN: Yeah.

MS. ALINEJAD: --"so we don't want to touch this issue," which was an insult to a nation when you call barbaric laws part of our culture.

But I have to say that women in Iran bravely practicing their civil disobedience for years and years and years, but the brutal death of Mahsa Amini created a huge anger because she was not part of any civil disobedience act or any protest. She was just walking, and she was not even unveiled. The police went to her because she wore hijab, improper hijab, inappropriate hijab, and immediately, when she got killed, every teenagers relate to her story because it could have happened to anyone. Men, women relate to her story, and that's why it started from Kurdistan, but now across Iran, teenagers, school girls, they're taking to the street and they're saying that "You killed Mahsa. Now we are all Mahsa." Yes, a revolution taking place in Iran led by women.

MS. BROWN: It's just blown up into flames. It's extraordinary.

Nazanin, you were actually not born in Iran, but you've spent your life in the West right, in London and California.

MS. BONIADI: I was born in Iran.

MS. BROWN: You were born in Iran, but you came to London and California.


MS. BROWN: So what has really sort of planted the seeds for you to become such a passionate activist and stay connected essentially with, you know, the culture that you're no longer living in?

MS. BONIADI: Well, thanks for having us, Tina, and hello to all of you. This is such an important moment for our country.

I always say the first protest that I attended, I was still in my mother's womb. She was 19 when she was pregnant with me in Tehran, and it was 1979. And she was one of those brave women who defiantly stood up against what she saw unraveling in the country, which was basically everyone being stripped of their rights but particularly women and girls. They were facing a social, legal climate that was--you know, they were having their rights stripped away from them. And we were lucky enough to be able to escape before my father was executed. He was on the execution list.

But that revolutionary fervor of standing up against injustice was sort of ingrained in my social consciousness since I was zero years old, and then when I was 12, I went to Iran for the first time. And I spent two months there. I turned 13 in Iran, and we've traveled across the country. And I remember having a run-in, a pretty harrowing experience with a morality policeman who approached myself and my 45--I was 12 at the time. My 45-year-old uncle was standing next to me, walking down the street, my mother two or three steps behind us. And we got stopped by the morality policeman, and he demanded that we produce marriage certificate.


MS. BONIADI: A marriage certificate. And I thought, I'm 12. I'm already being forced to wear a hijab. That's not what I want to do, and I'm being accused of being in a relationship with a 45-year-old man who is my uncle, and it was so harrowing and jarring. My mother, I remember, stepped forward and defended us and said, "That's my brother, and this is my daughter." And he just wouldn't have it, this guy, and I thought that is the daily experience--


MS. BONIADI: --of girls in Iran, of being harassed.

MS. BROWN: Constant harassment.

MS. BONIADI: Constant harassment.

So, when I had the platform as an actress, I immediately wanted to use it to amplify the voices.

MS. BROWN: Well, the Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, who star in an Oscar-winning film actually, she posted a photo of herself with her hair uncovered. That's a risky thing for someone who's such a prominent woman in the public eye to do. I mean, what kind of a risk is she taking by doing something like that?

MS. BONIADI: mean, that's so extraordinarily brave. You know, we are seeing daily the videos coming out of Iran of what happens to women when they take their hijab off, and Katayoun Rihai and other celebrated actresses right at the start gave an interview to a news outlet outside of Iran without her hijab. And she said it best. She said, "People are no longer afraid of prison because Iran itself has become a prison," but that's extremely brave what they're doing.

MS. BROWN: Well, yeah. It's really--she's put her life in danger essentially.

Masih, you know, you and your family have paid a very, very steep price for your activism, right? I mean, they kept--they put your brother in prison, correct?

MS. ALINEJAD: Yeah, for two years.

Look, taking hostage is in the DNA of Islamic Republic. You Americans know that. After--right after the revolution, the first thing that the Islamic Republic did, took American diplomats hostage. Yes, they released them, but still they have 80 million Iranians hostage.

When they--I don't want to really talk about my family because my heart is broken when I see now that teenagers are getting killed in Iran, and I really want to name them. Sarina was only 16-year-old. She took to the street to be the voice of Mahsa Amini. They killed her. Nika was only 16-year-old. She went to the street by burning her head scarf. She was leading the protest. They killed her.

But more important than this, they brought their family on TV to denounce them publicly, to say that, you know, "Yeah. Our daughters committed suicide," and I am familiar with this because I was the one watching my sister on TV denouncing me for 15 minutes. And they asked my mother to do it. My mom, as you know that, because I told her story many times in “Women in the World,” she's not even able to read and write. But she's the true feminist. She said that in tiny village, "If you come back to my house again and ask me to go on TV to denounce my daughter, I will set fire on myself, and I kill myself." This is the true feminism in Iran.

Every single woman, as Nazanin and I both following their stories, reading them, hearing them every day, we cry with them, but at the same time, we feel more powerful that they're leading the movement. They're not scared of anything. They look unbelievably powerful. Tina, it's like, wow, these are like the icons that we read about them in the books, in the history, but this historical revolution is happening in Iran right now. And I want you to be with them, to be with us, and to be their voices.

MS. BROWN: Well, I think we all are. There's no doubt about that, but what more can we all do? I mean, last week, you met with President Macron, and, you know, these diplomatic visits, you always tend to think, well, what is really that going to achieve, except, you know, for the sort of powerful photo opportunity? Is this--

MS. ALINEJAD: Well, ask me.

MS. BROWN: You know, I mean--


MS. BROWN: There you are.

MS. ALINEJAD: Actually with Macron.

MS. BROWN: What did you--I mean, what did it achieve for the movement to meet with Macron?

MS. ALINEJAD: I mean, first of all, I have to say that, look, he's shaking my hand. I make him to do it, because only 50 days ago, he shake the hand of Ebrahim Raisi, which the world called him president. But I want to ask every single of you. Media are here. Please stop giving democratic title to dictators like Putin, like Khamenei, like Ebrahim Raisi. Yes. This is the time.


MS. ALINEJAD: So, when I saw that President Macon--no, no. I really want to see his picture.


MS. BROWN: Bring it back.

MS. ALINEJAD: When I saw him shaking the hand of Ebrahim Raisi, it broke my heart. It made me angry.

Nazanin, honestly, did it make you angry?

MS. BONIADI: Oh, extremely. I think every Iranian who wants freedom was angered.

MS. ALINEJAD: Because more than 300 people got killed.

And I just had the request that, you know, this is the time I want to meet with you. He accepted, but I said that I'm not going to just have a photo opp. I invited young women. One of them, Roya Piraei, when she was meeting President Macron, she said that--she actually brought the picture of her mother. She said that "This is my mom. Ebrahim Raisi killed her. Don't shake the hand of those who killed my mother."

So you say that what we can do? You can do a lot, but let me be very clear. I'm not here to ask the Western countries, the leaders of G7, the leaders of democratic country to save us, but we are here to ask the democratic countries, stop saving our murderers, and stop saving the Islamic Republic. While teenagers are shaking this regime, stop shaking the hands of these murderers, and that's the first step.

I asked President Macon to recognize the uprising, as it is--it's a revolution. And he did. He asked the press, and he actually made a statement and said--he is the first one so far. He said that this is a revolution, but I have to say he had explanation, long explanation, saying that France is all about diplomacy.


MS. ALINEJAD: "That's why as a head of the state, I shake the hand of the president of Iran." I said, "First, he's not the president. He's the butcher. Second, France is all about revolution. France has respected"--

MS. BROWN: That's good. Very sly.


MS. ALINEJAD: Yes. And, actually, he loved that.

MS. BROWN: I bet he loved it.

MS. ALINEJAD: That's why he recognized the Iranian revolution.

[Laughter and applause]

MS. BROWN: So, listen, what concerns me, though, now is, I mean, we're all in awe of this extraordinary courage. You know, we're rooting for you, but, you know, some 14,000 protestants have now been arrested.

Yesterday, an Iranian court handed out the first death sentence to a protestor, but, you know, Iranians are not backing down. But are we just going to see this thing forcibly fizzle out with, you know, arrests, disappearances, and death, people moldering in prisons and executed silently? I mean, what do you see here?

MS. BONIADI: I'm seeing the first female-led revolution of our time, and--


MS. BONIADI: And here's where it's powerful and it's different from the past, because what we're seeing is men and women standing shoulder to shoulder for a feminist cause, for freedom for women, and it's because this Iranian society-at-large has recognized the intersectionality of gender equality and every other basic human right, which has been deprived from the Iranian people for 43 years, the right to free expression, fair trials, due process, assembly, freedom of assembly, you know, not having torture, not having forced confessions, things that people are rising up against. Minority rights, LGBTQ rights, all are connected to this movement, and women have managed to galvanize people and have Iranian society-at-large understand that intersection of their rights.

So I think that's why it's powerful. I think it resonates with people outside of Iran in a major way because of movements like the Civil Rights movement in America and Black Lives Matter and bodily autonomy, things that we all care about, and we understand the fragility of our freedoms. And that, I think, is resonating in a similar way that apartheid South Africa, when we all rise up to end apartheid in South Africa. That's what I see for Iran. I really think this is a moment for us.

MS. BROWN: Well, I mean, the new development really is that the men are now really joining the women, correct? I mean, how long did that take, Masih? Because when you first began to post videos of women taking off their hijabs, the men were not always supportive of women doing this at all.

MS. ALINEJAD: I mean, that's very, very powerful now when I see men are in the streets. There are--there is a very powerful video of men walking toward security forces with open arm. Women are behind and saying that "We are ready to sacrifice our life for the freedom of our sisters." I still get goosebumps.

And one of the young men put a story of a man standing in front and telling the woman with her hair down just to stay behind, "I will sacrifice my life for your freedom," and that young man got killed. And her--his mother was grieving but proudly saying that "Yes, you actually did what you promised."

You know, I remember for years and years, yes, the Iranian regime used men against women saying that you own your sister, you own your daughters, you own your mothers. Women are not allowed to go to stadium, and this is how Iranian regime oppressed women by using men.

Now this revolution led by women supporting by men actually, you know, showing the rest of the world that these are the true face of Iran, it's unbelievable, unbelievable that women in Iran are not allowed to ride a bicycle. Women in Iran are not allowed to go to stadium. Women are not allowed to get a passport without getting permission from their husband. Women are not allowed to dance. Women are not allowed to sing.

Can you believe that? I have a good voice. I can sing for you.


MS. BROWN: What would you sing?

MS. ALINEJAD: Honestly, women--

MS. BROWN: What would you sing if you were there now, Masih?

MS. ALINEJAD: I mean, it breaks my heart that women cannot sing. What can I sing?

[Ms. Alinejad sings "Sarzamin-e-Man" in Farsi language]

MS. ALINEJAD: "Sarzamin-e-Man" means my Homeland. My homeland. You are very tired and exhausted.

I cannot translate.


MS. BROWN: You two women so seriously--we're so honored to have had you with us today, and it's very moving to hear and very, very important that we keep behind you. And is there anything you can tell this room that we can do for you?

MS. BONIADI: We have finally, after 43 years of campaigning, managed to get a human--UN Human Rights Council session, November 24th.


MS. BONIADI: It's only taken four decades, but we are there, and what I would encourage everyone to do is please keep calling your representatives. Keep using your voices and ensure that everyone stands unequivocally with the people and not the regime of Iran.

MS. BROWN: Thank you.


MS. ALINEJAD: Can I say something? Can I add one thing before we go?

MS. BROWN: You may.

MS. ALINEJAD: There was a Women's March in New York, everywhere, Washington, D.C. I was part of Women's March because the slogan was "my body, my choice." Many Western female politicians when it comes to Islamic Republic and Afghanistan, they never say "my body, my choice." They say to Islamic Republic and Taliban, where, you know, "My body is your choice." Stop doing that.

You can call for an international women's march for women of Iran and Afghanistan. We can take to the streets. When women's march in Iran and Afghanistan is bloody, let's do it here in New York, in America. Let's take to the street and show our solidarity and sisterhood to the women of Iran and women of Afghanistan. Together, we are stronger, and we will win this battle just together. Thank you so much.


[End recorded session