Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, author and women’s rights campaigner. She hosts “Tablet,” a talk show on Voice of America’s Persian service.

On July 17, Instagram restricted my access. I still don’t understand why.

What did I do wrong? I still don’t know. Instagram didn’t initially offer any explanation. I might guess that my offense was giving voice to the voiceless in Iran. My 7 million followers on Instagram make for a powerful platform.

On July 12, Iranian women had staged a day of action to challenge the Islamic republic’s National Day of Hijab and Chastity, set up to reinforce the country’s harsh law on forced veiling. Over the next days, I posted many videos on my social media feeds showing women defying the regime’s official dress code.

There were confrontations between these women and the morality police and security forces. In one video from July 16, a hijab-wearing woman films a bareheaded woman on a bus, warning that she will send the recording to the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Another woman on the bus films her in return.

“I know you are filming me now to send it to Masih Alinejad. She cannot do anything to me. But the Revolutionary Guards will destroy you,” says the traditionally attired woman. One of the other female passengers retorts, “I’ll send my video to the whole world.” Other passengers stop the bus and push out the veiled harasser. (The woman who refused to wear the hijab was later arrested.)

That video — which I shared — went viral on social media; it was viewed 2.5 million times on Instagram and more than 1 million times on Twitter. It shows how many women are resisting forced Islamization.

A day later, I suddenly received a message from Instagram informing me that it had restricted my access: “We limit how often you can do certain things on Instagram to protect our community.” For a full day, I wasn’t able to use Instagram Live. There was no further explanation or appeals process. “Tell us if you think we made a mistake,” the note concluded, offering two options, “Tell us” and “OK.”

So I clicked on “Tell us.” I got a pop-up window that said: “Thank you, your response has been recorded.”

That was it.

(Asked to comment, an Instagram representative said the restriction “was placed on Masih’s account incorrectly because of a technical issue,” explaining that the platform automatically issues restrictions “when our systems detect spammy behavior.” The representative added: “It is against our policies to take action on accounts at the request of the Iranian government.”)

Since launching the “My Stealthy Freedom” campaign (1 million followers) against compulsory hijab on Facebook and Instagram in 2014, I have been targeted by the Iranian regime for my activities. I spent months in multiple safe houses last year after the FBI foiled a plot by Iranian agents to kidnap me in New York and whisk me back to Iran. On all my social media platforms, I am targeted by cyberbullies, fake accounts spreading false narratives, and even troll accounts impersonating my page.

But now I also feel targeted by the social media platforms. Earlier this year, I met some fellow Iranians who said they couldn’t find me on Instagram. Odd but true! Despite my officially verified account and millions of followers, I was invisible to the network’s search engines. If you typed my name in the search box, more than 50 accounts popped up — but none was mine. (By comparison, when my husband, a Led Zeppelin fan, typed in “Jimmy P,” the verified account of Jimmy Page came up immediately.)

This was not some random glitch. To me, it seemed that someone had gone to a lot of trouble to make me unfindable on Instagram.

I managed to complain to Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Meta, which owns Instagram. The company fixed the problem after a week, but no one ever explained how it was possible for this to have happened in the first place. (The Instagram representative said there have been “instances where we’ve removed content from [my] account in error, mistakenly believing they broke our rules.”

I’m glad Instagram has admitted its mistakes. Technical issues happen; social media restrictions aren’t necessarily proof of censorship or nefarious influence. But there’s a troubling pattern here. Why did the system restrict my account right at the moment when I was about to promote a protest against compulsory hijab? If algorithms have the power to restrict accounts, can the Iranian regime game those systems in its own favor?

And then there’s the human factor. Many Iranians have been accusing Instagram and Facebook content moderators of deleting or censoring accounts that track the regime’s human rights abuses. In May, Iran International blamed Instagram for removing images of security forces beating protesters and firing tear gas into crowds.

Meanwhile, whistleblowers who had worked for Telus International, a company hired by Instagram to monitor content, claimed that Iranian agents have offered as much as $10,000 to delete and censor accounts (including mine) that report on human rights violations. (Telus International told the BBC that it believed the accusations were false “but that it took them very seriously and had launched an investigation into their merits.” In its statement to The Post, Instagram also said it has seen no evidence for the claims but is investigating as well.)

Last week, when security forces stormed the houses of the activist group Mothers for Justice, they warned members of the group to stop using Instagram to speak up about the killing of their children. That tells you everything you need to know about Instagram’s importance as a means for creating open discussion in Iran.

Social media gives ordinary people a chance to push back against the lies of authoritarian regimes such as Iran’s. Social media companies should not be doing the work of authoritarian governments. They should be helping to spread the truth.

washingtonpost

A women’s rights activist with over 7 million followers on Instagram has warned that Iran may be manipulating the platform’s moderation system in its own favor.

In an op-ed entitled “Does Instagram Have a Problem with Iranian Dissidents?” in the Washington Post on Monday, the US-based activist Masih Alinejad recounted her recent problems with Instagram including loss of access to Instagram’s ‘live’ feature. She said this happened right after she posted a video of a confrontation on a city bus in Tehran between a hijab-wearing woman and another who refused to cover her head.

The video posted by Alinejad went viral on social media and had over 2.5 million views on her own account within a short time.

Ali Khan-Mohammadi, the spokesperson of Iran’s Headquarters For Enjoining Right And Forbidding Evil, tasked with promoting the Islamic Republic’s interpretation of Islamic laws, said on Saturday that based on the Islamic Republic’s Penal Code any cooperation and sending videos to Alinejad could result in one to ten years imprisonment.

Khan-Mohammadi argued that sending material to Alinejad would be considered as collaboration with “enemies and hostile media networks” because since 2021 she has been “an official member of the CIA”.

Asked by the Washington Post to comment, an Instagram representative said the restriction “was placed on Masih’s account incorrectly because of a technical issue,” explaining that the platform automatically issues restrictions “when our systems detect spammy behavior.” The representative added: “It is against our policies to take action on accounts at the request of the Iranian government.”

But Alinejad is not convinced and says it is not some random glitch as it appears there even a more serious issue. Some fellow Iranians have not been able to find her on Instagram despite having an officially verified account and millions of followers.

“Technical issues happen; social media restrictions aren’t necessarily proof of censorship or nefarious influence. But there’s a troubling pattern here,” she wrote.

“Why did the system restrict my account right at the moment when I was about to promote a protest against compulsory hijab? If algorithms have the power to restrict accounts, can the Iranian regime game those systems in its own favor?” she asked while mentioning that human factor could be involved.

In the past few months other Iranian activists and groups have complained about restriction on public access to their Instagram direct messages as well as removal of hashtags, videos, and posts related to ongoing protests in the country.

In May, a Persian-language content moderator for Instagram and a former content moderator told BBC Persian that Iranian intelligence officials offered them money to remove Instagram accounts of journalists and activists. Both content moderators also accused some Iranian colleagues of exhibiting “pro-regime bias” when reviewing posts on the photo-sharing service.

The former content moderator who spoke on condition of anonymity told the BBC that he “personally knew some reviewers who supported the Iranian regime and received instructions from Iran”.

Both the current and the former moderator worked for the Germany-based Persian-language moderators’ group of Telus International, the third-party company responsible for dealing with reports and complaints from Instagram and Facebook users.

In May, Iran International also complained about its videos from protests in Iran being removed by Instagram.

Instagram which has around 45 million users in Iran is the only major social media platform not blocked in the country where other platforms such as Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, Twitter, and Telegram cannot be accessed without the use of internet blockage circumvention software and VPNs.

Iran has one of the world’s worse internet censorships, with tens of thousands of websites blocked since the early 2000s and most social media platforms banned. In the absence of free media and the very high level of censorship, many Iranians turn to social media for political news and information.

iranintl

Nationwide Protest Against Compulsory Hijab

July 12, Streets of Iran

by #WhiteWednesdays and #MyCameraIsMyWeapon Campaigns

For forty years, we, Iranian women, have been fighting against the compulsory hijab in various campaigns. We have gained experience along the way and our demand for the right to choose clothing and our protest against physical and mental violence caused by the compulsory hijab has turned into one of the main civil movements of today’s Iran. We say NO to forty years of humiliation of Iranian men and women. Our protest is against  discrimination and humiliation cause by the compulsory hiajb, not a piece of cloth. Our demand is to respect human dignity, freedom of opinion and the right to choose our own clothing and lifestyle, and to “SAY NO” to gender apartheid.

Every day of our life has become protest and civil disobedience. Men and women stand together shoulder to shoulder along this path in collective actions. Now, we Iranian men and women against the compulsory hijab, continue all the protests of the last 40 years, in a wider campaign of No2Hijab (#حجاب_بی_حجاب) and we are determined to once again appear in the public spaces of our cities wearing our choice of clothing and protest. Our goal is to show solidarity against the fundamental concept of compulsory hijab as one of the pillars of a religious dictatorship. We believe that if we break any pillar of this apartheid government, we will get closer to freedom. Join us!

We, the women, say “NO” to compulsory hijab. We say “NO” to a regime whose laws are all anti-women. Let’s keep this discrimination in our minds daily and remember that it is with the money and budget of this country that they want to celebrate hijab and chastity on July 12th, in the stadium where women are banned from entering. Let’s take back our share of the streets on July 12th, on the same day. Spread this message to all the people who are against the compulsory hijab. In parties, schools, workplaces, public transportation, shopping centers and other spaces that allow us to communicate collectively, we can convey our message to our fellow citizens.

We invite all Iranian women and men, members of the women’s movement, students’ movement, retirees, labor workers, athletes and other justice seeking movements of Iran to join the fight against the compulsory hijab in any way they can. Let each of us carry a torch as far as we can. Do not wait for a leader. Do not wait for a savior. Each of us protesting women is a leader for change. If each of us brings a friend or family, we will make the biggest demonstration against the compulsory hijab.

#NoHijab

#NoToCompulsoryHijab

#NoToIslamicRepublic

La giornalista e attivista iraniana Masih Alinejad è protagonista del documentario Be my voice. Abbiamo incontrato lei, ricercata dal governo iraniana e sotto protezione, e la regista Nahid Sarvestani Persson
CHIARA PIZZIMENTI

Masih Alinejad mostra sempre il suo volto: è una scelta e una necessità. Vuole e deve mostrarlo perché lei è la voce delle donne iraniane. La sua voce è sempre anche quella di di chi alla propria voce ha dovuto rinunciare. In Be My Voice, documentario della regista Nahid Persson, regista iraniana naturalizzata svedese, Masih Alinejad, giornalista e attivista, racconta la sua battaglia per le donne e contro l’obbligo del velo in Iran. i suo capelli sono un simbolo di libertà.

Anche i fatti di questi giorni in Ucraina dimostrano che basta un attimo per perdere i propri diritti. Masih Alinejad è esempio e guida di un movimento che coinvolge donne in tutto l’Iran. Quello che fa, togliere il velo, è un atto di disobbedienza civile. Dall’esilio, vive sotto protezione negli Usa, non ha smesso di lottare. Dai suoi profili social racconta la sua battaglia e riporta le storie di chi non può farlo direttamente. Be My Voice ha il patrocinio di Amnesty International Italia.

«Questo film vuole dimostrare alla mia gente che una rivoluzione è possibile. Il cambiamento è possibile, ma abbiamo bisogno dell’attenzione del mondo, della politica e dell’opinione pubblica dei paesi occidentali. Vediamo che il regime va avanti grazie alla politica occidentale. Le donne iraniane hanno il coraggio di opporsi al regime, ma devono sentire il sostegno delle loro sorelle occidentali che, se vanno in Iran e mettono il velo, annullano gli sforzi fatti» spiega la protagonista che parla per l’Iran, di un apartheid di genere.


Attraverso i social a Masih Alinejad arriva ogni giorno un’ondata di dolore. «C’è stato un giorno in cui ero sopraffatta da questo dolore e chiedevo di fermare le riprese. Ho fatto del mio dolore la mia forza. Ricevo video di donne che sono state arrestate per essersi tolte il velo, di persone condannate a morte. Sono le loro madri a mandarmi i video come quella di un pugile che è stato giustiziato nonostante avesse solo protestato pacificamente. Quello che io posso fare è essere la voce anche di chi è morto». 

A chi le chiede se non si sente in colpa visto che chi la segue è perseguitato dice che vuole continuare a essere la loro voce, questo non la rende colpevole. «Ci sono tante Rosa Parks, tante suffragette». Il documentario racconta il percorso di Masih Alinejad nella battaglia per i diritti delle donne iniziata come giornalista parlamentare in Iran e poi continuata negli Usa. Ci sono, nel film, i video che le arrivano, i gesti di disobbedienza civile in Iran, come lo scoprirsi il capo, ma anche le proteste di piazza contro il governo. Il messaggio lo rilancia la regista Nahid Persson: «L’Occidente non deve essere amico della Repubblica Islamica, deve sostenere i diritti universali».

«L’Occidente ha paura di tagliare i contatti con l’Iran perché teme che diventi una seconda Corea del Nord» spiega Masih, «in realtà questo già succede. Non mi interessano solo i diritti delle donne in Iran, ma per democrazia e libertà in tutto il mondo. Il governo iraniano ha messo mio fratello in prigione, ha interrogato mia madre, ha minacciato di 10 anni di prigione chi mi manda i video. Io rappresento l’Iran, tutte le persone nel mio paese vivono questo ogni giorno».


A portare Be My Voice nelle sale italiane sarà la Tucker Film insieme al Pordenone Docs Fest – Le Voci del documentario, dove ha conquistato il Premio del pubblico. La data scelta per l’uscita è, simbolicamente, lunedì 7 marzo, alla vigilia della Giornata internazionale della donna.

ᴠᴀɴɪᴛʏꜰᴀɪʀ

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I am a woman of color. A woman from the Middle East, from Iran. I immigrated to the United States to be free. I know writing these words will make me politically incorrect in today’s media but I am going to write them anyway as they are the truth and the truth must be told.

“As a women who lived under Sharia law for 28 years, I am afraid of Islam.” There. I said it. 

This is what Middle Eastern women have been tiptoeing around in the #LetUsTalk campaign on Twitter in the past two weeks. It has been like walking on eggshells. Some women in our campaign are afraid to say these exact words because they work in academia and they are worried of being sacked. The journalist who initiated our campaign, Masih Alinejad who has 7 million followers on Instagram and three hundred thousand on Twitter has been shadowbanned on both platforms. 

Yet what we say is just the truth. We, the women, were forced to wear hijab starting at the age seven. We could not get education without wearing hijab. We would have been arrested, lashed, and prisoned if we didn’t wear hijab in public. We were not allowed to sing and dance. We could not travel abroad without the permission of our husbands. Our testimony was worth half a man’s. We inherited half of what a man did. We were not guardians of our children, only their fathers and grandfathers were. Yes, as a women I am afraid of Islam as it as inherently a misogynistic religion. I have experienced it first hand for 28 years and I am not the only one. Millions of women from the Middle East can share personal stories of oppression with you.

I have been told my experience is not of Islam but the extermists ruling in Iran. To those, I say listen to the women who suffered the same in Muslim communities in Canada and the US. Read Yasmine Mohammad’s story. Watch Unorthodox. Even though Unorthodox is about a Jewish woman in New York, she went through the same oppression that we Middle Eastern women did.

But, why does this all matter, you might ask. Because we see a trend to embrace hijab as a symbol of diversity in the West and we, the small minority who escaped Islamic countries are hushed with the excuse of Islamophobia.

As an American I cherish freedom of religion, free market and freedom of speech. I enjoy seeing people of different religions living peacefully together. I can see that as Christians build churches and send their followers to missions, Muslims build mosques and advertise hijab. Yet criticizing Islam has turned into a politically incorrect topic while I am free to criticize Christianity all I want.

February first is Hijab day. Hijab is a symbol. A symbol that women do not have the same freedom as men. It is a symbol of oppression. I know most people who use it as a symbol of diversity are well intended. But they are not well informed. After all, how many of them have worn a scarf for twenty years?

Passport photo of me and my brother, 5 and 6 vs me how I want to look like.

By Elnaz Sarbar

Elnaz Sarbar is a women’s rights activist based in California

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