Head held high

A gritty journalist from Iran wants her country to do away with compulsory hijab

Masih Alinejad | Deborah Feingold Masih Alinejad | Deborah Feingold

MASIH ALINEJAD encourages defiance. An Iranian journalist, it is her mission. She incites it, glorifies it, and ensures that it is put out in full view of the world. It was a small step; it started with a scarf. Or not having one. And, it has started a small revolution on social media. My Stealthy Freedom—a platform for women in Iran to protest the compulsory hijab—has supporters like Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Tina Brown, journalist and talk-show host.

“Nothing has changed. The Islamic Republic of Iran counts women as second class citizens. The woman who removes the hijab gets 20 years in prison,” Alinejad says over the phone from Brooklyn.

It has been a year since she has seen her son; nine years since she has met her family. At a recent rally in Iran, her sister read out a statement on behalf of her family, to say they were ashamed of her. In her book, The Wind in my Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, Alinejad writes about how her father was unhappy with her campaign. She writes about the hijab which she hated, but it was so much a part of her that when she first removed it and walked bareheaded in Beirut, she was “feverish with excitement”. When she yanked it off, she held her breath expecting to hear police sirens and loud warnings from the morality police. “I had been told that my virtue, my chastity, my self-worth, all were wrapped up in my head scarf,’’ she wrote.

She is fighting for the freedom of those left behind. At a time when Iran has been declared enemy number one by US President Donald Trump, Alinejad is trying to negotiate the minefield of being an Iranian in America and trying to have a nuanced position. To have a different position on Iran, other than that it being branded evil, may not be possible. “I have to say Donald Trump pulling out of the nuclear deal is not going to help the Iranian people,’’ she says, carefully weighing her words. The sanctions have not helped. “The sad thing is that the Iranian people are suffering,” she says. “I had hoped that the benefit of the deal would go to the people of Iran. But, I have to say, if the benefits were going to the people, they would not have taken to the streets, shouting against the clerics saying we need water, we need electricity, we need a better life. The main slogan on the street is why are you spending our money on Gaza, Syria and Lebanon.”

Alinejad wants women to experience what she did that day in Beirut. “I know it is really dangerous for women inside Iran,’’ she says. “Every day they get arrested, they get threats and they get beaten up. I faced these threats when I was a teenager. I had two options: to keep silent or be the voice of the people who faced the same problem as I did. I have to give the platform for those who are fighting back.”

Women who post on the site get into trouble. Twenty nine have been arrested. Defying the law, even if it is to lead a battle for equality, can be a heavy burden to bear. “I was shocked, and I felt guilty,’’ she says. “But guess what? One of them who got arrested, the first thing that she did after she got free was to publish a video of herself on Instagram. She said, ‘I was part of the White Wednesday campaign [when women wear white] and they arrested me because I protested against compulsory hijab. By threatening me you cannot keep me silent’.”

Another woman wrote that she was interrogated for hours as to why she was working for Alinejad. “She said, ‘I am not working for Masih. This is Masih working for me. She is just my voice. I do not have a voice in Iran’. This kind of stuff gives me hope,’’ Alinejad says.

The Wind in my Hair: My fight for Freedom in Modern Iran

Author: Masih Alinejad

Publisher: Little Brown UK/Hachette India

Pages: 394

Price: Rs 699