The Menace of the Mullahs
A woman’s bold fight to unveil Iran
As a child, she roamed her rural village mischievously poking at beehives. Now, Masih Alinejad pokes a much more dangerous colony — the mullah-led government of her native Iran. The object of her crusade is the “hijab,” the headscarf, without which no woman in Iran is allowed to appear in public. “The hijab,” says Alinejad, “makes the woman a hostage to the Iranian regime.”
Since childhood, the natural born rebel has bristled at the religious dictates of the bearded men. And she has paid a high price. At just 18 years old, Alinejad was imprisoned. She has lost her job as a top journalist. She has lost her home. She has lost her family. In 2009, US President Barack Obama invited her to the US for an interview. Then, he let her down for fear of provoking the Mullahs.
Alinejad did not give up. In exile, she started a revolution from her kitchen. It began with a single picture: Alinejad joyfully running down a London street lined with pink blossomed cherry trees, her wild, chestnut hair tousled by the wind. The photo was accompanied by the caption: “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 called upon women around the world to share their own secret moments of freedom.
Soon, Alinejad was bombarded with photos of women proudly discarding their headscarves. What began as a single image has now grown into a massive online movement against the mandatory hijab called "My Stealthy Freedom" with millions of followers worldwide.
Last year, Alinejad published a top selling memoir, “The Wind in My Hair.”
The Mullahs routinely denounce the 42-year-old mother as a "spy” and a “traitor.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently invited her for a one-on-one meeting, praises her "bravery" and "continued dedication" defending human rights in Iran.
I meet “Masih” (as her global sisterhood affectionately refer to their hero) at a cafe in her new home base, Brooklyn, NY. I call it the epicenter of the “HaiRevolution.” Little do I know that soon I, too, will experience the disconcertingly oppressive power of the hijab.
Let’s start with recent news from Iran. Media are reporting that Ali Motahari, the deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, demanded a nationwide vote on the hijab. What is your reaction?
My first reaction was, “Yes, we won the battle.” Ali Motahari is the son of Ayatollah Motahari who wrote a basic work about hijab. For forty years, the ruling religious elite was using the term “Hijab is an order from God. Hijab is part of Sharia Law.” So, nobody is allowed to question the order from God. But, now, they question it.
My second reaction, which I made public, was, "This is my body and my right to choose what I want to wear. Nobody can make a decision about my body. So, you're putting a referendum about my absolute rights? Instead you have to put the existence of Islamic Republic on a referendum right now, because people are fed up with Islamic Republic.”
But we won the battle, because we made them talk about this. We won, because women stood up together, and we started our own revolution.
You call it a revolution?
I really call it a revolution. At the beginning, it was an online movement. It was me publishing the videos and photos of women of themselves holding their headscarf. But, now, it’s not limited to an online movement. People take to the street, and they practice their civil disobedience. Women write me and say, “Through ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, I became really brave, and I started to gather women and go to the park, take off our hijab and walk together.”
What happens to women who dare to take off their veil in public in case they get arrested?
If you take off your headscarf while driving a car, you get arrested and fined, and your car gets impounded. If you do it as a protest against compulsory hijab, the punishment is much more severe. Recently, women were sent to prison for two years. One of the women from my campaign was sentenced to twenty years — two years in prison and 18 years on bail. That means, if she protests against the hijab again, she is going directly to jail.
What do you reply to critics who say, “Masih, while you are safe in your Brooklyn home, you are putting people in Iran in danger.”
My answer is this: “This is not me. It is the Islamic Republic of Iran that puts women in danger.” Before my campaign was launched in 2014, 3.6 million women were stopped in the streets. They were warned and some sent to court.
3.6 million women?
In only eighth months, 40,000 cars were impounded. Why? Because women were driving with a loose hijab, an inappropriate hijab. Before you even start to protest against hijab, your life is in danger. That is the reason why women are sending their videos to me. They are fed up with religion interfering in their lives. When people say that it is dangerous for them to protest against hijab, I say, “Being a woman is dangerous in Iran.”
How do you feel, personally, when women send you their videos taped in Iran? Do you see them somehow as your daughters?
I cry a lot when I hear that they get into trouble. It makes me frustrated. But I cannot give up. What motivates me is when they call my name. They say, “Hi, Masih. This is me, and I’m being attacked by this cleric. Please be my voice.”
How many videos do you receive daily?
More than thirty per day. But I only publish a handful of them. They give me power. They give me hope.
You were forced to leave your country in 2009 after you uncovered a corruption scandal in the Iranian Parliament. How is your personal family?
I lost my family. I haven’t seen them for nine years. Sometimes, I really miss touching my mother’s face, or I miss my brother’s hand on my shoulder. I miss everything about my family. But I found another family. I found bigger family. When I was growing up in a tiny, poor village, we had a black and white TV.
You are talking about Ghomikola in the North of Iran, the village you were born?
Yes. We had a black and white TV, and I was the one who had to listen to clerics. Now, I am the one the clerics are listening to through their own TV. Of course, they all know me by my name, with different names. They call me “MI6 agent,” the “CIA agent.” They call me “ugly duckling.” I always say they don’t know the end of the story of ugly duckling. [laughter]
There is a wonderful anecdote about you in your book. When you were a very young girl, you would take a stick and poke it in the beehive. This seems to be a behavior that is deeply rooted in your nature.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do I keep stirring up deadly swarms?”
I’m going to tell you how I was raised as a girl. Then, you understand. I grew up in a tiny village. I didn’t have books about feminism. I never had a clue about equality. I never had a clue about discrimination. Nothing.
Your family was sleeping together in one room?
Exactly. All of us. We didn’t have running water. We didn’t have electricity.
You only had an outdoor washroom.
You read my book very well. Yes. We didn’t have anything. My little brother, Ali, was an example of all of the freedom that I wanted to have. He was free to show his heart. He was free to sing solo. He was free to play with a bow and arrow. He was free to do whatever he wanted to do. I, in contrast, was restricted. I had to nap with my mother after lunch while my brother ran away to the river.
You felt treated unfairly?
Very early on. I had to wear a veil from an early age, even in the house. My body was like a hostage in the hands of my father, society, the law. I wanted to be as free as Ali. That’s why I started to poke a stick into the beehive.
Although my brother was allowed to do everything, he was scared of darkness. This was a problem because, at night, he was scared to go to the outdoor bathroom. Other than my brother, I was really brave. My mother told me that darkness is like a monster. “If you let your fear win, then the darkness can devour you,” she said. “But if you open your eyes as wide as you can and stare into the darkness, then the darkness will disappear.” I believed in my mother’s words, and it worked. So, I ended up taking my brother to the outdoor bathroom. During the day, he was the king of the village. But every night, he depended on me.
You had power over your brother.
I did. And I used that power. I saw myself like a leader. I told him, “I’m not going to take you to the outhouse if you don’t take me to the river.” The day after, he said, “Okay, I’m going to teach you how to ride a bicycle so you don’t ruin my freedom.” This is what the true women’s movement in Iran needs. We have to ruin the freedom of the men to make them understand.
You want to disturb them in their world?
Yes. Disturb them. Let me tell you something. Often I get this from men. They say, “We have so many big problems. We have poverty, etc. Why do you care about a small piece of cloth?”
That’s a very good point. Why are you obsessed with this small piece of fabric?
[Masih grabs a long, white, embroidered scarf from her bag.]
Wear this headscarf for half an hour and sit still. Don’t dare to take it off!
You’ll forgive me if I do it only for a minute.
No! You have to wear it like a woman. If you don’t wear it, you’re not allowed to ask another question. [Masih is smiling at her spontaneous experiment.]
Remember, if women don’t wear it, they are not allowed to go to school, not allowed to live in their country.
[Reporter awkwardly puts the headscarf on.]
How do you feel?
That’s it! [Masih laughs.]
We have to disturb men to make them understand this is not about a small piece of cloth!
That leads me to another question. I really... I have to take it off.
Why do you have to take it off? [She says chiding the reporter.]
I feel restricted and, actually, the minute I put it on, I lost my role of conducting the dialogue.
Yes, especially if you are forced to wear it and somebody tells you, “This is not the proper way to wear it. You have to wear it like this.”
[Masih reaches forward and pulls the scarf lower over the reporter’s brow.]
This reminds me of a crucial moment of your biography when you were summoned to face Judge Mortazavi, the infamous prosecutor general of Tehran. He goes by the nickname “The Butcher of the Press.”
The notorious judiciary in Iran who killed Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist. He [the judge] humiliated and tortured a lot of journalists.
[The reporter touches the headscarf.]
Why are you taking off? Don’t take it off! [Masih laughs.]
I’m only adjusting it because I need to at least see.
[Masih leans back.]
Tell me how you feel.
I feel suffocated. I’m a freedom loving person. I am Swiss. The Swiss are not a member of any union. We’re not even a member of the EU.
[Triumphant, Masih gives the reporter a high five.]
The moment when you were facing this frightening judge, he was playing with you, picking his nose, pretending you were not there…
You can take it off now. I don’t want to exhaust you.
Thank you. You’re too kind.
[The reporter gratefully removes the head covering.]
Oh, my God! You look like a totally different person. [Masih laughs. She has filmed the scene. Later she published the clip on her Instagram account. It went viral generating 140 000 „likes" within hours.]
When you were facing this notorious judge, he falsely claimed you had illegal affairs and committed adultery. He wanted to ruin your reputation to silence your voice. He threatened to sentence you to prison for many years. You had been to prison before. You were thrown out of Parliament.
I was kicked out from everywhere.
Facing humiliation and massive threats, how do you find the strength to keep on fighting?
It was my upbringing. If you are poor, and if you grew up in a village where all men went to war, you have to manage your life, yourself.
I used to watch my mother. She expressed herself in a very simple way. She is illiterate. She told me, “If you ask your brother for a favor, then you always have to ask him. Think about being independent. Don’t be a victim. Be a warrior.” I learned from my mother the power of saying “No.” She never said “No” to my father. But she taught me to do it.
How is your father?
My father stopped speaking to me, but I still love him.
Do you think he loves you?
I strongly believe he loves me. One day, the Iranian government managed to bring my sister on TV. She disowned me publicly. I was watching her, and I was crying. I was nervous that they would bring my father and my mother on TV, too. I couldn’t breathe. But they resisted. That shows that they love me.
Considering your powerful fight for freedom, one would expect you to demand a total ban of the hijab. But you do not. Why?
If you ban people from something without educating them, people will resist. If you give people the free choice and educate them about their bodies, their rights, their dignity, then it gives them the opportunity to make the right decision. That’s my point. But for women like my mother, I don’t want to ban it for them. If you ban my mother from wearing her hijab, she’ll spend the whole time in her room.
Because she grew up in this tradition?
Yes. But I am for a total ban of the veil for children. Like this, we are making a statement against political Islam. Some people tell me, “You’re causing Islamophobia by saying that.”
Haven’t they got a point? That, with your prominent voice, you help the powers who hate Islam?
No. It is the political Islam, it is the Sharia Law, causing Islamophobia.
Across Europe, we see more and more women wearing veils. It is counter to our tradition to wear a veil. Should it be banned across Europa?
I think this would be wrong. With a ban, you’re inviting a lot on the left, a lot of feminists, to downplay our cause for freedom of choice. When you ban one thing, then our message gets lost.
I hate the hypocrisy of those women who condemn the burkini ban in France, but, when it comes to compulsory of hijab in Iran, they keep silent. A lot of female politicians, a lot of feminists, they go to Iran and wear the veil.
Claudia Roth the former party chair for the German Greens, several Swedish ministers, and even our Swiss Ambassador to Iran all wore a veil.
Your Swiss ambassador to Iran [Livia Leu, now Swiss ambassador to France] — I criticized her a lot. She said that she wears the headscarf to respect the culture of Iran. I said, “When you call this the culture of Iran, you’re insulting Iranian people.” Because compulsory hijab has never been part of Iranian culture.
What is the legal or religious foundation for obliging women to wear a hijab? Is there anything about this in the Quran?
I don’t know. Go and ask the religious people. I don’t care whether it’s in the Quran. Even if it is in the Quran, it’s wrong, and we have to be brave and challenge it. Why? Because it’s about my body and my rights and my choice. No religion, no culture, and no law can violate my rights.
Now, we’re getting into fundamentals. As you write in your book, the veil is a very strong symbol.
It’s the most visible symbol of oppression against women.
The most visible part, like the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at the whole iceberg: the religious ruling system. Can the suppression of women ever stop as long the religious system is dictating the social life?
I love this question. Let me tell you something which is really important. I hate having religion mixed with politics. I want the Islamic Republic to go. Millions of Iranian people want to get rid of Islamic Republic. But we have to be smart and find a path.
If you ask people, “Come and join me to overthrow the regime,” people get scared. The level of oppression is really high in Iran. Instead, we ought to choose a symbol for the people — a symbol like “Fight for your rights to dance. Fight for your rights to sing.”
You want to change the system, step by step?
Not step by step. People are scared of being engaged in a political movement. We have to be smart to get people involved in a movement which is about their personal rights.
When I said, “Let’s say ‘No’ to the government,” nobody joined me. When I said, “Let’s feel the wind in our hair,” a lot of women followed us. This is the way that I can launch my own revolution.
When I talk about the small piece of cloth, a seven-year-old girl can understand. A 90-year-old grandmother joined me. Why? These people, all of them, are fed up with religious interference in their lives.
You are not only a nightmare, but a threat to the regime.
Yes, we, I, am a threat. That’s why they produce fake news about me on Iranian state TV, every month. “Masih is paid by the Israeli government.” “Masih is paid by MI6.”
Sometimes, it makes me cry when they put pressure on my family. But, in the end, it means that I made them cry. I made them miserable. That’s why they attack me.
How far do you think the regime is willing to go to fight people like you?
They cannot go far. It’s no longer only me. We have a daily war in Iran, a cultural war.
Is there a #MeToo movement in Iran?
It is a complicated issue. Our campaign has raised the issue. But, in Iran, accusations of sexual harassment are dangerous to make for women.
However, it is happening enough that even the Supreme Leader entered the #MeToo movement. On his Twitter account he said that women in the West are being raped just because they don’t wear the hijab, just because they don’t know Islam.
I said to the women inside Iran, “We have to launch our own #MeToo movement to show the Supreme Leader what is happening in Iran, right now.”
If an Iranian woman gets sexually harassed and goes to court, they are going to say it was the woman’s fault. The Islamic Republic puts the blame on, us, women. So, I told the women, “Use your camera.”
As a weapon. We created a Twitter and Instragram account “MyCameraIsMyWeapon.”
A lot of women are posting films of men who are exposing themselves, harassing women. And the women are saying, “This is my power.” If the judiciary system doesn’t help us and, instead, puts the blame on us, we find our own way to fight for our rights.
I strongly believe #MyCameraIsMyWeapon is our version of the #MeToo movement in Iran. One of the videos got two million views on Instagram.
Two million? What was it about?
It’s about a 12-year-old girl that was harassed by a bunch of older men who showed her their genitals. The girl is crying, but she says, “Masih, you told us ‘Don’t get scared. Just use your camera.’” She got the camera, and her video went viral.
Finally, the police went and arrested the men. This is the only way to make the #MeToo movement work in the Middle East. Create a scandal for the regime. Otherwise, they never respond.
After Barack Obama was elected US president in 2008, you wrote a letter to him. To your great surprise, you got a reply. They were preparing an interview for you.
Can you believe that?
You travelled to the US, but then the interview was cancelled. Was Obama scared to meet you?
Yes. His administration told me, “Because you are working with the reformist newspaper, and now the editor of your newspaper is one of the presidential challengers, Karroubi, if we give you the interview, then the Green Movement might be labeled as an instrument of the American government.” [Note: This was during the Iranian Presidential elections. The opposition was called the “Green Movement”
I was, like, “What? I cannot believe that.” Obama didn’t understand. Whether you help us or not, we are being labeled for years and years. The Green Movement leader is still in prison, today.
Once the election was over and President Ahmadinejad was confirmed in power, Obama could have given you an interview without worries.
After the election, I didn’t ask him because he broke my heart. Obama’s name in Persian has a special meaning. “O” means “he.” “Ba” means “with.” “Ma” means “us.” When we translate his name to our language, it means “He is with us.” People in the street in the Green Movement were chanting “Obama! Obama!”
But he never replied to the call.
That’s what I’m saying. He broke a lot of people’s hearts because he never replied to the people’s call.
The same time when people in the streets of Tehran were calling his name, he sent a secret letter to the Supreme Leader of Iran. The Supreme Leader of Iran was the one who called for the security forces to kill the demonstrators. I was going to say Obama was timid. In fact, he was a coward.
You finally met with the US government. You recently were invited by Secretary of State Pompeo. Who initiated this meeting?
It’s funny, but after it became obvious that the Obama meeting wasn’t going to take place, State Department officials suggested, perhaps, I could meet with the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton? Or maybe with one of her deputies? I said, “Forget it!” Not once was I contacted again by the Obama Team. As far as they were concerned, I was against the Ayatollahs and that was a black mark against me.
I was wary of the Trump administration. And, although they had reached out to me a number of times in 2017 and 2018, I didn’t feel the time was right. On one occasion, I was invited to a dinner that Secretary Pompeo was hosting in Los Angeles to meet key members of the Iranian community. I declined. Human rights are very important to me, and I didn’t want our campaign to be used as a window dressing. However, when I was invited for a one-on-one meeting with Secretary Pompeo, I accepted because this was a chance to explain our campaign.
Pompeo thanked you for your bravery. How did you feel?
He thanked the Iranian women inside their country who are fighting for their dignity and risking their lives to protest against compulsory hijab. Five years ago, when I launched this campaign, other activists scorned my efforts. The Islamic Republic mocked me. We haven’t reached the mountaintop, yet, but Iranian women have shown that they are a force to be reckoned with. Secretary Pompeo acknowledged that.
Some journalists argue that the Trump administration is exploiting your movement. What do you say?
Of course, I’m aware of the criticism leveled at the Trump Administration. But has anyone thought that I am the one exploiting the Trump administration?
Let’s be frank. It was the Obama administration that buried the human rights issue under the nuclear deal. Many activists say that Obama turned a blind eye to the atrocities in Syria so as not to antagonize the Islamic Republic.
As a women’s rights activist, as a human rights campaigner, I need to have impactful meetings to make sure that human rights, and especially women’s rights, are not abandoned in any future negotiations between the US and Iran.
I have also had meetings at the European Parliament, at the US Congress with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.
I encourage all activists to meet with the Trump administration and share their views.