After surviving a foiled kidnapping and assassination
attempt and being exiled to America, Iranian activist
Masih Alinejad will not be silenced.

By Joanne Camas

It’s hard to know where Masih Alinejad ends and her activism begins. Over the years, they have welded firmly together into a powerful, galvanized whole.

The Iranian-American journalist and fearless women’s rights campaigner has been named one of Time magazine’s Women of the Year, and she is known around the world for her (very) vocal challenges to the Islamic Republic of Iran. “My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society,” she writes in her best-selling memoir The Wind in My Hair, “and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties.”

The costs of speaking out have been personal and painful, there front and center for Iran’s leaders and people to see. You’ve probably watched the gains on the news—women in the streets, protesting compulsory hijab in Iran, baring their heads and braving the consequences. Parents marching in fury and
tears to speak out as hundreds of schoolgirls are poisoned in chemical attacks.

What’s not so obvious is how fighting oppression has changed Alinejad’s life forever. The costs have been tremendous, and they keep compounding.

So who is Masih Alinejad, and what drives her?

Well, it’s clear that she’s never been a shy bystander. Even as a child in her tiny rural village of Ghomikola in northern Iran, she was always right where the action was. “I used to tie a rag to the top of a stick and pretend it was a microphone,” Alinejad says.
“I would go to family events, gatherings, and even funerals in the village and ask them a million questions as if I was a TV reporter; I’d ask them what they felt and thought. My mother was always
so embarrassed….”

By the time she was a teenager, that desire to spread news to the community put her in the crosshairs of the Iranian government for the first time.

“We are seeing women who soon after they are released from prison in Iran chant ‘Woman, life, freedom!’ and discard their hijabs as they exit the prison’s gates. They know the risk they are taking, and they are brave enough to do so.”

She formed a book club with some friends and read leftist literature to learn about politics outside of Iran. When her brother Ali joined, he said that his university was teaching as if history only began 20 years ago, when the Shah was overthrown. He suggested that they should write their own history, Alinejad recalls in her memoir. Together the group wrote and secretly distributed its own underground political pamphlet, demanding more freedom in Iranian society.

The secrecy did not last long. Alinejad’s fiancé, Reza, was detained first; she was then arrested at her parents’ home, blindfolded, driven to prison, and interrogated for days, with the threat of the death penalty hanging over her. Finally, the judge sentenced Alinejad to five years in jail and 74 lashes but suspended the sentence for three years.

That first frightening foray into journalism didn’t deter her. She talked her way into an internship at a reformist newspaper, then became a parliamentary journalist, gingerly navigating around her past conviction to gain security clearance. When she broke the story of a payment scandal in the Iranian government in 2005, though, she lost parliamentary access.

Alinejad’s refusal to wear the hijab has led to confrontations with clerics, security services, men in the street, and even her conservative father over the years. In fact, the New York Times once described her as “the woman whose hair frightens Iran.”
“Compulsory hijab, when hijab is forced, is a symbol of oppression and misogyny,” she says when asked whether the wearing of the hijab is still a religious practice or has become an issue of control. “After the revolution, the women faced the greatest oppression and were forced into covering up.”
In her memoir, she writes about her personal experience with being forced to wear a hijab: “My hair was part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it. When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf.” Today she wears a flower in her hair and embraces the freedom that comes with it.

While the issue of compulsory hijab is important, “now we
demand nothing less than the demise of the Islamic Republic,” Alinejad says. “The people want regime change. We are seeing more women in Iran venturing outside without their head covering. But we want so much more, beyond the end of the compulsory hijab—we want to remove the Islamic Republic.”

When she wrote articles criticizing former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, she was classed as an enemy of the regime, and when the government tried to crush protests against the disputed presidential elections in 2009, she was forced to leave Iran.
After a few years in London, she settled in New York with her husband and son. It’s been quite a ride from tiny Ghomikola.

“Growing up, I never knew of a world beyond the nearest town, and then my ambition was to go to Tehran,” she says. “I never expected to make my home in New York, but right now, I long to go back to my village. Back then I was seen as a rebel, but now they are ready to accept me.

“You see, I never wanted to change the world, I just wanted to take small steps to change the people around me. I believe if you fight for your dreams, then one day you will achieve more and more.”

Alinejad’s still a force to be reckoned with in exile, giving an online voice to protesters in Iran who send her phone footage of themselves in the streets without a hijab [the Facebook group “My Stealthy Freedom”] or video of attacks on demonstrators and the recent poisoning of schoolgirls.

“I am incredibly inspired by them,” she says of the new generation of activists in Iran. “We are seeing women who soon after they are released from prison in Iran chant ‘Woman, life, freedom!’ and discard their hijabs as they exit the prison’s gates. They know the risk they are taking, and they are brave enough to do so. Even after experiencing extreme brutality, they are resilient and unstoppable. They will not stop until this regime no longer reigns over the Iranian people.”

Does she think technology has helped more people become activists? “Our campaigns are designed to maximize the usage
of social media and the latest technology to bypass censorship,” she says. “Our mobile phone cameras are our most powerful weapons. Technology has allowed us to share our truth with the entire world.”

“The downside of relying on technology is that it can be switched off,” she notes. “The regime cut off the internet in 2019 when it killed 1,500 protesters and again last year as it clamped down on demonstrators. But we are finding ways around regime censorship.”

She’s not surprised to see women protesting so openly and vocally in Iran today. “The anger has been building up over the past 15 years or so,” she says. “In 2009, after the fake presidential elections, millions took to the streets to protest the stolen election. At that time many wanted to reform the regime, but in subsequent protests in 2017 and in 2019, the demand was not for reform but regime change. Now we are in the midst of a revolution.”

As a lifelong advocate for representation and democracy, Alinejad is increasingly concerned about attacks on these principles in her U.S. home. “Almost all of my friends in the United States are rightfully concerned about American political polarization,” she explains. “I think those of us who came to the U.S. from authoritarian regimes are perhaps even more concerned about this because we know how difficult it is to establish a democracy and we don’t take it for granted.”

As for her home country, “My hope is that we will see a secular, democratic, free Iran in our lifetimes,” she says. “We don’t need the West to save us; we just need them to stop enabling the Islamic Republic.”

She is constantly aware of the dangers she faces speaking out about oppression in Iran, even from the other side of the world. In 2021, four Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for attempting to kidnap Alinejad from her home in New York City, and the following year a man with a loaded AK-47 was arrested outside her home. In January, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the arrest and indictment of three members of an Eastern European crime syndicate for plotting to kill Alinejad in New York.

Now she is forced to live in a safe house, and she misses her garden and chatting with her neighbors, that little slice of normal life. “Tending to my flowers and vegetable garden gives me my energy back,” she says. “I love gardening so much that sometimes my husband will ask me whether I want to be a gardener instead of a revolutionary. I’ll often tell him that if I can’t tend to my garden, how can I help develop my home country?”

Alinejad clearly misses Iran, her family, and yes, her beloved garden, but she’s not wavering in her support of the people of Iran, even as she faces threats to her own safety.

Indeed, she believes the time has come for activists to harness their anger and act forcefully. “The human spirit can only be oppressed for so long until it eventually must fight back,” she explains. “Many of us who have been abused by the regime have reached that breaking point and are willing to look danger in the face and say, ‘We’ve had enough.’ ”

Wow I’m speechless! Today the US government asked the Iranian regime that killed #MahsaAmini and more than 500 people who protested her murder to investigate their own crimes.
I responded to this nonsense and gave more details about the chemical attacks on schoolgirls.

“They don’t care about public pressure from outside Iran, they only care when the leaders of democratic countries take strong action and isolate Khameini and his gang of killers the way that they isolate Putin”

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.”

Masih Alinejad in New York on Feb. 3, 2023. Celeste Sloman for TIME

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.

Read More: Why the Women of Iran Are TIME’s Heroes of the Year

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?”


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