Those who challenge by showing their hair

In Iran, women are sentenced to long prison terms only for taking off their veils for a short time. Iranian women also get their faces disfigured for the same reason. Journalist Suzanne Gottfarb writes about those who risk their lives because they turn out to be bareheaded.

Suzanne Gottfarb

Yasman Ariani, 16 years in prison.

Monireh Arabshali, 16 years in prison.

Mojgan Keshavarz, 5.5 years in prison.

Rahele Ahmadi, 4.5 years in prison.

Saba Kordafshar, 24 years in prison.

These are some of the women imprisoned in Iran. Their only crime is that they have filmed themselves bareheaded and sent their videos to the exile and journalist Masih Alinejad, who has made it their life’s work to be the voice of these women. Masih, who has more than five million followers on social media, publishes these videos in his TV show “Tablet – voice of America”.

In Iran, Masih was a political journalist but asked so oppositional questions that she was eventually forced to leave her homeland. In 2014, she started the protest movement My Stolen Freedom in New York, followed by White Wednesday, My camera is my weapon and most recently Men in hijab, where men dressed in hijab stand next to their bareheaded wives, sisters and mothers. It started with Masih photoshopping a picture of Iran’s foreign minister wearing a hijab. That image received an incredible 13 million views.

In other words, Masih has become a nail in the coffin of the regime and a factor of power to be reckoned with. The chairman of the Revolutionary Court has, in his own high person, felt compelled to go out on Iranian state television to warn women. Anyone who takes off his veil and sends his videos to Masih risks imprisonment for between one and ten years.

About this, the Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson has made a documentary, “Hear my voice – the revolution of the veil”, which is available on and is sold to several countries.

“More and more people are being imprisoned, more and more people are being executed in Iran,” says Nahid, who herself fled to Sweden from Iran after the revolution in 1979, when her two younger brothers, aged 15 and 17, were imprisoned. The 17-year-old brother was executed.

– The regime in Iran is no better than IS. They oppress, kidnap, mutilate, whip, imprison and execute their own citizens. This is the most political film I’ve made.

Women in Iran are also attacked with acid. The young and radiantly beautiful Masoumeh Atai is now blind with a disfigured face.

– I have twelve videos from women who have been subjected to acid attacks, Masih says on the phone from New York.

– Some have been attacked by strangers on the street because they did not wear the hijab. In other cases, it is family members who, because of divorce and the like, have punished them in this brutal way. The most horrible thing is that men who throw acid go free, while women are sentenced to long prison terms just because they claim their human right to rule over their own bodies.

In Iran, gender apartheid prevails . You are oppressed only by being born a woman. A woman is not allowed to dress as she pleases, not to sing or dance, not to cycle, swim or play football. Because of his activities, Masih receives daily death threats. Iranian men threaten to throw acid in her face, to skin her, to slaughter her.

And the regime has put a price on her obsessive-compulsive disorder, where the large curly hair adorned with a flower has become a symbol of women’s freedom. Her autobiography consistently bears the title “The wind in my hair”. Now Masih’s older brother Ali has also been sentenced to eight years in prison.

– They tried to get him to lure me to Turkey, where I would be taken on to Iran to stand trial, she says, but he refused. Instead, he warned me. That’s his only crime. He is not politically active in any way. He has two small children. They are holding him hostage to keep me quiet.

Masih gets overwhelmed by videos. From International Women’s Day on March 8, bareheaded women can be seen handing out flowers in the subway. Several of them are now in prison.

A mother shouts out in despair after her daughter received a long sentence: “Women who take off their veils spend their best years in prison,” she shouts. “Why are you silent around the world?” Because of this video, she herself was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison.

But during Sweden’s only hijab demonstration, Swedish feminists in 2013, led by Gudrun Schyman – then spokesperson for the Feminist Initiative – instead put on veils and demonstrated for the right to wear the hijab without being harassed.

– The world is truly upside down, says Nahid Persson. Of course I am for religious freedom. Adult women get to decide for themselves. But I believe that the hijab is an oppressive garment, which, for example, should not be allowed for minors in schools.

Men in Iran are freer but only as long as they do not oppose themselves. Inside a prison, Kurdish Shahram Akmadi films with a smuggled mobile phone. He is sentenced to death for “warfare against God.” His brother has already been executed. And in December last year, Nahid’s good friend, the journalist Ruhollah Zam, was hanged, publishing news critical of the regime from his platform in Paris.

– He was tricked into going to Iraq, where he was kidnapped, Nahid says. That he was the son of a mullah did not save his life.

Right now, the Swedish-Iranian researcher Ahmadreza Djalali is also in solitary confinement in Iran after a death sentence for alleged espionage.

– Djalali’s mother has also contacted me and asked me to be her voice, Masih says.

– Iran calls the United States the great Satan and Israel the little Satan. But it is not them but us, the Iranian women, who are the enemies of the regime. Change must come from the people. Not from us activists. A flower does not make a garden. But if everyone sows a seed, the world will be full of flowers.

Author and journalist.


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