It’s been 13 years since Masih Alinejad hugged her mother. That realization hits her during a TIME interview in early February, followed by another one: “Oh my God, I forgot my mom’s face,” she says, wide-eyed and shaking her head in disbelief. She stops and composes herself. “Look, I don’t want to cry on camera.”
Alinejad, 46, understands the power of her platform. Exiled from Iran since 2009, the journalist and activist has long spoken out against Iran’s restrictions on women, calling the compulsory hijab “the Berlin Wall” of the regime. Her campaign alarmed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who not only rails against her in speeches but even sent his minions to kidnap her in July 2021. One year later, a similar plot was to end in assassination, according to a U.S. Justice Department indictment. “Women of Iran are his biggest enemy,” Alinejad says. “He’s scared of us more than anything.”
And the women of Iran are angry. Months-long, nationwide protests have roiled the country after a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa “Jina” Amini, died in September in the custody of the notorious “morality police” who roam public spaces to enforce Islamic dress and behavior.
Still, Alinejad arrives in surprisingly good spirits at TIME’s New York City studio, coming from the FBI safe house where she is in hiding with her husband and son. She understands that attention feeds a rebellion built on the slogan “Woman, life, freedom.” Regime forces have killed more than 500 protesters and detained thousands more; the streets have grown quieter in recent weeks. But the depth of her connection with Iran’s young people—she has nearly 9 million Instagram followers—tells her the Islamic Republic is living on borrowed time. As the photographer works, she sings. “The words mean: because I am a woman, I blossom through my wounds.”
Alinejad grew up in a tiny village near the Caspian Sea, where her father was a sharecropper. She found purpose as a newspaper reporter in Tehran but left Iran for good in 2009 after running afoul of the regime for, among other things, reporting that lawmakers had not taken a pay cut they’d claimed. “I asked too many questions,” she recalls.
When she first began speaking out in New York, her only weapon was social media. In 2014, she launched a campaign called My Stealthy Freedom, asking women inside Iran to record themselves without hijabs; she would upload their videos to her Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts. Thousands of women have obliged over the years, the campaign branding itself with the hashtag #WhiteWednesdays.
“Iran is inside me,” she says. “I am there every single day through my social media.” The videos and social media connections remain a way for her to connect with her homeland, where her elderly mother still resides.
In November, French President Emmanuel Macron, seemingly moved by a meeting with four Iranian women—including Alinejad—declared the protests a “revolution.” She has also briefed U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and met with other exiled Iranian dissidents to discuss ways of uniting a fragmented opposition. And she has asked female politicians to stop donning the hijab. “I am asking all Western feminists to speak up. Join us. Make a video. Cut your hair. Burn a headscarf. Share it on social media and boost Iranian voices. Use your freedom to say her name,” she wrote last year.
As she speaks, Alinejad looks around the studio. For once, her own phone isn’t in her hand. She has just been talking about young girls—16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh and 17-year-old Nika Shakarami, both beaten to death in protests last year—and she wants to put faces to their names by showing TIME photos and videos of them.
When these girls were killed, she says, “suddenly they became heroes. Why don’t people pay attention to women when they’re alive?”