What inspired My Stealthy Freedom?
The campaign started in May 2014 after Masih Alinejad posted a picture of herself on Facebook, running freely without the veil in the streets of London, visibly enjoying the wind stroking her hair. Masih followed it up by posting an old photograph taken inside Iran, where she had had taken off her veil while driving. Masih urged her fans to create their own moments of stealthy freedoms in Iran, away from prying eyes. Almost immediately, women began taking off their compulsory hijab in the streets, shopping malls, bazaars and sending their selfies for publication to Masih’s Facebook page. That was how a ground-breaking campaign was born.
Later, the campaign blossomed into different initiatives such as #MyForbidden Song (to broadcast the voices of Iranian women singing solo, an act still forbidden in the Islamic Republic), #WhiteWednesdays (whereby every Wednesday women in Iran wear white scarf or go without veil to protest compulsory hijab laws). The White Wednesdays campaign took the online Facebook movement onto the streets of Iran’s main cities. As part of the campaign, women took to the streets bare-headed and send not just photographs but videos of their protests. The ground-breaking moment that gave rise to the #GirlsOfRevolutionStreet was when Vida Movahedi started waving her white scarf as a flag in a busy street (called Revolution Street) on a utility box in public on a White Wednesday. Can freedom be stealthy?
Can freedom be stealthy?
Freedom is absolute and cannot be stealthy. We choose the name My Stealthy Freedom as an ironic rejoinder that under Islamic Republic all freedoms are possible as long as they are private. We totally reject that approach.
What kind of reactions the public showed in Iran and around the world? Positive or negative?
The reactions from Iranian women has been very positive. Without the daily support of Iranian women this campaign would not be possible. The compulsory hijab has always been a thorny issue in Iran, from 1979 when the clerical government imposed it. Women have always resisted compulsory by pushing the dress code boundaries, by wearing shorter and more colourful coats, and headscarves but these depended on the tolerance of the security forces. But, fighting against compulsory hijab was not pursued actively by Iranian women’s groups. My Stealthy Freedom campaign is the first movement since 1979 to challenge compulsory hijab laws.
It should be noted that such a challenge is only the first step toward full and equal rights for women. After all, if a woman cannot decide how to cover her head, she cannot control what goes on inside her head.
The Islamic Republic has shown great hostility to the campaign and taken harsh measures against our activists.
Inside Iran, based on the latest statistics released by the security forces, in one year alone, more than 3.6 million women were warned, detained and some even sent to court for punishment because their hijab was deemed as “inappropriate.” And 2014 TK, more than 40,000 cars were impounded because the women drivers were not fully covered.
Other more determined activists inside Iran have been arrested, beaten up and given hefty jail sentences for peacefully protesting compulsory hijab.
Has the campaign been replicated in other countries?
Turkish women, for instance, have been avid supporters, launching #BeyazÇarşambalar, their version of #WhiteWednesdays campaign. Women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have also expressed willingness to start similar campaigns as part of a wider women’s rights movement.
What is #MyCameraIsMyWeapon campaign?
MyCameraIsMyWeapon, has become something like an Iranian #MeToo movement. The campaign encourages women to use their mobile phones to film cases of public harassment by the morality police or citizen vigilantes. Many of our videos have exposed the security forces beating, arresting or even badmouthing women with inappropriate hijab. The regime officials have admitted that the security forces have retreated from confrontations when confronted with a camera.
Can a foreign-based campaign be successful? Why are the Iranian women not suspicious of Masih Alinejad’s calls for change when she is living outside the country?
Masih was a famed investigative journalist in Iran and was forced to leave the country in the days before the disputed 2009 presidential elections or face arrest and jail. Although Masih is outside Iran, the campaign is a platform for the women inside Iran. Her campaign, now in its sixth year, would not be possible without support of millions of Iranians inside the country. The fact that Masih lives abroad does not change the reality that millions of Iranian women do not want to wear the compulsory veil but have no platform inside the country.
Isn’t the concern about compulsory hijab an issue of top 1%?
The campaign has received videos from all corners of Iran, even from the most conservative cities (Qom and Mashhad) and from small villages. The issue regarding compulsory hijab is about dignity and not a small piece of cloth and as such all women can relate to call for freedom to choose. The campaign has also received a lot of videos from different generations posing together (mothers with daughters, grandmothers with grandchildren). I have even received videos/pictures from women in their 80s.
Is hijab part of Iran’s culture?
Compulsory hijab has only been around since 1979. In fact, compulsion has never been our culture. Before the revolution women were free to choose how they dressed and some opted to wear the hijab and just as many choose not to wear the veil. They lived and worked peacefully next to each other for decades.
The Islamic Republic not only imposed compulsory hijab but in effect tried to turn women invisible. No woman can be a judge, or a Friday prayer leader or become elected as president or appointed as the Supreme Leader.
What is the campaign’s biggest achievement to date?
We have put compulsory hijab and women’s rights on the political agenda. Women are showing that they are no longer afraid. We used to fear the government, now it’s the government that fears women.
How about the risks that women take?
Being a woman in Iran is a risk by itself. Iranian women take risks every single day when they defy the compulsory hijab laws by letting out strands of their hair and risk getting arrested. Opposing discriminatory laws or standing your ground in a society where discrimination against women has been institutionalised is also a risk by itself that women take time and again. In essence, living as a woman in Iran is not risk-free.
Why is this campaign in English and French if your audience is in Iran?
By all available metrics, about 80% of our supporters are inside Iran. But we want to focus international attention on Islamic Republic’s poor human rights especially regarding women. For example, we want the world to stop attributing the issue of compulsory hijab to the so-called “Iranian culture”. The Islamic Republic has even convinced female diplomats visiting Iran to don the hijab. That is why it is important that the world take notice of the fallacy being propagated by the Islamic Republic.
What about other injustices such as divorce law, non-equal pay or sexual harassment?
Iranian women face many injustices. We have always maintained that although our focus is removing compulsory hijab laws, that is only the first step to gaining equal rights. Once the wall of compulsory hijab falls down, other fights would be easier to win