By Alyssa Rosenberg and Masih Alinejad

Masih Alinejad in New York on Oct. 6. (Ed JONES/AFP)

Since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” in September, Iranians around the world — especially women — have taken to the streets to rebel against the country’s theocratic regime. A particular source of rage are the laws requiring women to wear the hijab: Amini was arrested and allegedly beaten before her death for not covering enough of her hair.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist with remarkable hair, has been openly denouncing compulsory hijab laws since 2014, when she launched My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook feed featuring images of Iranian women enjoying the fleeting moments when they could uncover their hair. (It has since grown into a full-fledged “disobedience campaign.”)

Alinejad, who spent much of her life trying to contain her curls, now wears her hair as a crown. And given her high-profile role as an activist and vocal supporter of the current uprising in Iran, she arguably has the most important hair in the world.

This month, Alinejad and I spoke about the history of her hair, why she cut it on national television, and what President Biden might learn if he were to spend 24 hours in a hijab. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Rosenberg: When do you first remember being aware of your hair as a part of your body?

Alinejad: When I started to go to school, when I was 7. We had to wear a specific kind of hijab, which we call maghnaeh. And I couldn’t put my hair in it, because my hair was very big. My mom and my father, they just held me. My mom held me and my father cut my hair, like in the middle, not the whole, to make it smaller. They were making jokes: “Now we can make a pillow out of this.” That was when I thought, okay, this is my hair, but it’s not mine. It’s under the control of other people.

Masih Alinejad with her father. (Family photo)

In your memoir, you seem to have a very clear idea of what made hair beautiful when you were young. Other than being told that you needed to cover your hair, what were you told about what a woman’s hair should look like?

I was never told a woman’s hair should look beautiful. But, definitely, my hair was the most hated — in my culture, in my village — because in Iran, when I was growing up, oh, my God, curly hair was a disaster. People mocked me, called people with big hair a specific name — it meant “big-head woman” — to shame us.

When I was taking an English course [to prepare to attend university in the United Kingdom], a woman asked me, “You straighten your hair?” And then she took off my headscarf and said, “My God, look at your head. What are you doing? You just straighten this part because when it’s out of your scarf, you want to show you have straight hair?” I said, “Yeah, because I don’t have time. I straighten my hair just a bit.” And she told me, “Don’t.”

I went back to my mirror and she said, “Just look at yourself.” At first I didn’t know why. She said: “Just look at yourself and don’t make your hair straight. Just look deeply at your hair. You are going to love it.”

I remember then I was like, “Wow. Yes, she’s right.” I was staring into my eyes, my hair, and I was like, “This is me.” Now, I really love my hair.

What did your mother teach you about how to take care of your hair?

My mom? Nothing. To my mother, my family, my hair was not valuable. It was something I should hide. I just learned from friends when I left Iran, when I was taking English courses to go to university. I met a lot of Black women who had big hair like me. I asked, what kind of product should I use? And still in America, I do this. I get advice because their hair is similar to mine.

When you were in Iran, was your main concern just keeping your hair contained? How did you manage it?

In Iran, if you have too much hair, you’re in serious trouble. Because when you’re walking around, you draw the attention of the morality police if your hair is out of your head scarf. So for me, it was extra work. Some people have joked about it, saying Masih launched a campaign against hijab because she has too much hair, she couldn’t handle it.

But the thing is, this is quite serious, especially for schoolgirls. I remember when I was in school — not even high school, like elementary school. A teacher comes to one of my classmates. She had long hair, so it was showing. And the teacher brought scissors and cut it. I was shocked. But it seemed really normal to other students.

Would you regularly get a hint or a warning if your scarf was slipping out of place?

When you go to a school, if you ask challenging questions, if you argue with a taxi driver or have complaints just while shopping, instead of arguing with you about the issue — maybe it’s a political question, it’s a shopping matter, anything — the first thing they say is, “First cover yourself, be hijab.” It’s like cursing you: “First cover yourself.”

As a [journalist covering parliament], I remember that anytime I asked a difficult question, the member of parliament would say, “First, cover yourself properly. Then ask your question.” I’ve heard other women say this: “When we challenged our teachers or professors at university, instead of answering us, they said, ‘First, cover yourself properly.’ ” It’s something they do to make a woman shut up immediately.

It sounds like a tax on your energy and focus.

Yes. This is controlling women through their hair, controlling the whole society through women’s hair, because they’ve also been telling men in the street: “This is against the honor of your family. You have to ask your sister to cover her hair. You have to ask your mother, your daughter.” Basically, they think that this hair, on my head, belongs to my father, my brother, not to me. It belongs to men. Belongs to the law.

It must have been disconcerting to feel like your hair could betray you.

That’s it exactly. When my hair got me into trouble, it was like, “Oh, my God, this bloody hair is betraying me and my family.”

This was the narrative: It’s your fault. If you get raped, it’s your fault. If you get arrested, it’s your fault.

I tried to change this narrative when I started to love my hair. I started making comments to every single woman walking past me. Maybe people think I’m crazy, but when I’m down, when I’m under pressure, I go to the streets and I talk about women’s hair. By talking about their hair, I can make family, I can make sisterhood, I can make friends.

Finally [with women unveiling themselves in protest in Iran], the world recognizes that Iranian women have some of the most beautiful hair in the world. And then when I go out on the streets here, I just cry when I see people taking their freedom for granted. I want to tell every single woman in the street in New York, “Hey, you really enjoy your hair, you enjoy the wind in your hair, you enjoy the beauty of your hair. But people are getting killed for their hair.”

What was it like to start experimenting and sort of playing with your hair? Did you try different styles to see which ones you liked?

Everywhere I go, it’s always the same style because I really enjoy my hair like this. Especially when I go to, like, a TV interview, this is the question everyone asks me: “What do you want us to do with your hair?” I say, “Just let it be the way it is. Because I like it.”

Masih Alinejad in London in 2007. (Family photo)

Sometimes I put it up, which I think is like a Christmas tree. My stepchildren, when they were really young, my son would joke and say, “We don’t want to buy a Christmas tree. Masih’s hair is like a Christmas tree. Let’s decorate the hair.”

My hair actually saves me from being depressed. Anytime I’m really down, I play with my hair in front of a mirror. You can see a lot of photos of me just jumping, and a lot of people want to know why I jump. It’s because I love it when I see my hair is dancing in the air.

It sounds like you feel freer in your body and in the world now that your hair is out.

All the years I’ve been living outside Iran, loving my hair, I want to jump, I want my hair to be like a waterfall.

The moment I heard that Mahsa Amini got killed for a bit of hair — oh, my God. My husband was hugging me, and I was like, “I hate, hate my hair.” I wanted to cut my hair. I felt guilty because I thought it was my fault — I’d been campaigning for eight years, but I was not successful in putting an end to the morality police. And, finally, a girl got killed.

My husband said, “You know, now you’re feeling down, but later you’re going to complain a lot.” Because he knows that when I cut my hair, I complain: “Oh, my God, I shouldn’t cut short my hair.” He hid the scissors, and then he went to work, and I couldn’t find them. So when I went to ABC to do “Good Morning America,” I asked, “Do you have any scissors?” And they gave them to me. And I said, okay, now I’m going to join Iranian women who are cutting their hair.

Now, one part of my hair is shorter. And I’m not complaining. One part is ugly — not ugly, shorter. But it has meaning for me.

Individual women in the West have been cutting their hair in solidarity with you, with other women in Iran. What can men do to show their support? And in particular what can men in power do?

A lot of people remember that many Western feminists, they wore hijab to show their solidarity. And now a lot of women are cutting their hair to show their solidarity. You’re right. Men aren’t doing anything. A first good step might be for them to wear hijab, to understand how it feels to be forced to wear it.

Maybe President Biden should wear one to see what it’s like.

I suggest he wear it one day — 24 hours. When you go to your office. When you go to your job. When you go to a party. To understand how it feels to be forced. Then you’re not going to downplay our cause.

Solidarity is important, but it’s only a first step. What should we be asking our governments to do?

The solidarity from across the globe is beautiful. But, especially, when I see female politicians cutting their hair, I say: “Oh, my God. Is that all the sacrifice you can make? Cut a bit of your hair? No. Cut your ties with our murderers.”


Iranians Have Had Enough of Theocracy
By Masih Alinejad

The current protests in Iran sound the death knell of the Islamic Republic. The killing in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for wearing the hijab incorrectly, has unleashed a wave of angry and bloody demonstrations, boycotts, work stoppages, and wildcat strikes that have exhausted the country’s security forces and spread to more than 100 cities. The government has endured major protests before, notably in 2009, 2017, and 2019, but these demonstrations are different. They embody the anger that Iranian women and young Iranians feel toward a regime that seeks to stifle their dearest desires. And they promise to upend Iran’s establishment.

Since Iran’s 1978–79 revolution, the Islamic Republic has relegated women to second-class status under sharia and the strictures of the Iranian constitution. But women, especially young women, have had enough, and they are now volubly rejecting the requirement to wear hijabs along with the social order that the Islamic Republic has sought to impose on the country. Some women have burned their headscarves, an act that two months ago was punishable by lashing and a jail sentence but now is not that rare an act in Iranian cities.

It is said that revolutions devour their children, but in Iran the grandchildren are devouring the revolution. Iran’s clerics have responded to this existential challenge with brute force, but violence and repression will not snuff out the will of a nation so roused against its government.


The Islamic Republic rests on three ideological pillars: vehement opposition to the United States, obdurate antagonism toward Israel, and institutional misogyny, especially in the form of compulsory hijab rules requiring women to wear coverings in public spaces. If any of these pillars weakens, the whole edifice of the Islamic Republic falls down. Tehran needs enmity with the United States and Israel to keep the revolutionary flame alive. Anti-Americanism is seared into the Islamic Republic’s identity. The enforcement of the dress code for women is also a redline for the clerical leadership. The compulsory wearing of the hijab is to the Islamic Republic what the Berlin Wall was to communism, a symbol not just of power and endurance but of vulnerability. The Berlin Wall was also an admission of the fragility of the communist system, which depended on exercising great control over people. Similarly, compulsory hijab laws reflect the Islamic Republic’s fear of allowing its citizens personal freedoms and its intent to control society by treating women as if they are pieces of property to be corralled and protected. Once the Berlin Wall fell, communism was doomed. The same fate awaits the Islamic Republic once women can throw off their veils and participate in social life as men do.

The Islamic Republic began to enforce dress codes on women soon after the Iranian revolution. The architects of the revolutionary state wanted to control how women dressed in public, banning tight-fitting clothes, bright colors, and makeup and insisting that women cover their hair. Under the country’s compulsory veiling laws, women and girls as young as seven are forced to wear a headscarf. Women who disobey face harsh punishment and are often charged with “inciting corruption and prostitution.” The state has given a number of women, including the activist Yasaman Aryani and her mother, Monireh Arabshahi, jail sentences—some as long as 16 yearsfor defying these laws. But hundreds more have paid and continue to pay that price for seeking the freedom to choose how to dress.

Compulsory wearing of the hijab is to the Islamic Republic what the Berlin Wall was to communism.

Iranian women have never quietly accepted the imposition of the headscarf. In 2014 alone, according to government figures, Iran’s so-called morality police (the detachment of Iranian law enforcement charged with upholding Islamic moral standards) warned, fined, or arrested 3.6 million women for “inappropriate dress.” Data for subsequent years were not publicly released, probably because it would reveal the extent to which Iranian women are fed up with restrictions on their dress. Even before Amini’s death, Iran’s clerics could sense the rising tide against the hijab. In early July 2022, the morality police issued warnings to women that they would be arrested if they did not comply with the hijab requirement. On July 12, the authorities held the annual celebration marking the National Day of Hijab and Chastity, which involved public rallies by pro-government loyalists in large stadiums to encourage the wearing of the hijab. But simultaneously, many women challenged the regime, using the hashtag #no2Hijab on social media and posting videos and photographs of women not wearing the hijab in public spaces. The regime arrested and beat up some of these dissenters and forced them to make apologies on national TV.

Iranian officials have used footage from surveillance cameras in public places such as subways and motorways to help identify and fine women who flout the mandatory hijab rule. The chief of the Headquarters for Enjoining Right and Forbidding Evil, a government body responsible for enforcing Islamist laws, warned in August that women who post pictures of themselves without a hijab on the Internet will be deprived of some social rights for six months to one year. Authorities have prevented women whom they perceive not to be in full compliance with the dress code from entering government offices and banks and from riding on public transportation.


Such measures have not stopped Iranian women from resisting the hijab. For the past decade, the authorities have had to deal with greater online militancy by Iranian women. With traditional media completely controlled by the state, Iranians have flocked to social media, especially platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, and WhatsApp, to push back against the veil. For instance, millions follow the social media campaign “My Stealthy Freedom,” which seeks to get rid of compulsory hijab laws in Iran, and its various initiatives, such as White Wednesdays (encouraging women to wear white scarves on Wednesdays as a sign of dissent), Walking Unveiled (when women unveil themselves in public), Men in Hijab (when men post pictures of themselves wearing hijab), and My Camera Is My Weapon (in which women share mobile phone footage of abusive men or interactions with the morality police), all designed to enable women to challenge the onerous dress code. The campaigns have empowered women to take off their hijabs and defy the strictures of the regime. Using their mobile phones, women have shared so many videos of morality police harassment via “My Stealthy Freedom” that the government introduced a 2019 law that made sending videos to the campaign an offense punishable by ten years of imprisonment.

For the regime, trying to control a young generation that wants social change and stronger connections to the West is an uphill battle. Despite widespread censorship, Iran’s Internet penetration rate (the percentage of the country’s population that have access to the Internet) at the beginning of 2022 was 84 percent, a high mark. Iran has over 130 million mobile subscriptions, which gives the country of 84 million people a staggering mobile phone penetration rate of 161 percent, with the average person having more than one phone. The reported number of Internet users in 2022 increased to 72 million from 58 million in 2020, and the real figure could be even higher.

Although the regime has banned many websites and social media platforms, Iranians have found ways to bypass censorship through the use of virtual private networks, or VPNs. According to a member of the Iranian parliament who was lamenting how strict censorship laws force Iranians to circumvent them, almost 80 percent of Iranians with Internet access have installed anti-filter and VPN software to evade censorship.

Young Iranians want the same freedoms and choices available to youth in the West. The Islamic Republic cannot bend to these desires without undermining its own authority, so it has contended violently with this wave of protests. Authorities have killed dozens of women, including 16-year-olds Sarina Esmailzadeh in Gohardasht and Nika Shakarami in Tehran.


The protests in Iran put the West in an awkward position. The Biden administration has tried hard to restore some version of the nuclear deal that the Trump administration jettisoned. But this deal cannot be salvaged. The Islamic Republic is not an honest broker: it has a track record of cheating (failing, for instance, in May to answer International Atomic Energy Agency probes about unexplained traces of uranium at three undeclared sites) and it has yet to fully come clean on its past attempts to develop a nuclear program with potential military uses. And worse, should U.S. President Joe Biden manage to reach some compromise with Iran, a new deal would fly in the face of his forceful condemnation of the regime’s crackdown on protesters. Any deal would likely release billions of dollars to the Iranian government, funding the same authorities who are viciously attacking citizens in the streets.

Instead, Biden needs to take a clear and forthright stand. He should use the bully pulpit of his office to deliver a major address on Iran—speaking to its people, its diaspora, and the world. Biden should applaud the democratic ambitions of the Iranian people and move beyond the White House’s narrow focus on the nuclear issue to demand that the human rights of protesters be respected. The administration has made the contest between autocracy and democracy a central theme of its foreign policy. Iran should be part of that policy. It is time to encourage the Iranian people to fulfill their democratic aspirations.

Beyond rhetoric, the U.S. government and its western European allies involved in making the nuclear deal should halt negotiations with the Islamic Republic as long as Iranian authorities are suppressing the protests and throttling the Internet. The United States should introduce respect for human rights as a condition for continuing any negotiations. Congress should also refuse to release frozen Iranian funds in foreign banks, conditioning doing so on tangible improvement in Iran’s treatment of its citizens.

It is time to encourage the Iranian people to fulfill their democratic aspirations.

At the same time, the United States should work with Starlink, the satellite Internet company, and other enterprises with similar capabilities to help provide Iranians with a free and secure Internet. The U.S. government should create a special method exempt from U.S. sanctions (perhaps by moving funds through banks in Erbil in northern Iraq and the Persian Gulf and leaning on the trust-based hawala system of money transfers that makes tracking payments difficult for states) to disburse frozen Iranian funds to striking workers inside Iran. Such support could embolden the strikes that have spread in parts of Iran and lead to a convergence of labor and political movements that would represent a significant threat to the Islamic Republic.

Senior members of the Biden administration should hold private and public meetings with members of the Iranian diaspora, Iranian dissidents, and Iranian opposition groups to get a better understanding of the true situation inside Iran. Congress should also get involved and hold public hearings, both on the protests in Iran and on how the regime threatens U.S. citizens, including members of the Iranian diaspora, to raise awareness of these challenges.


Some in Washington fear that if the United States overtly backs the protesters, the Iranian regime will more easily be able to shut them down, painting them as foreign or U.S. agents. In 2009, the Obama administration followed this line of reasoning and refrained from supporting the protests then roiling the country; Obama even made overtures to the clerical leadership just days after the protests began. Obama’s restraint did not make any difference: the regime still labeled the demonstrators as U.S. stooges intent on destabilizing Iran and throwing the country into chaos.

Since then, Iranian protesters have taken to chanting, “They tell lies when they say it’s America. Our enemy is right here.” That should be of interest to U.S. policymakers. Although the translation doesn’t do the chant justice, the message is clear: Iranians see the clerical regime as their real enemy. If the United States were to revive the nuclear deal with Iran at this moment, it would be meddling in the country’s internal affairs. It would strengthen an unpopular regime that is savagely crushing peaceful protests. The United States would be standing on the wrong side of history by propping up the Islamic Republic.

With women leading the way, Iran’s transformation from theocracy to a democracy will be remarkable. It will not happen overnight. But in their bravery, the Iranian people have voiced one central request to Western governments: Don’t save the Islamic Republic. In 2009, the Obama administration opted to deal with to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, rather than support the pro-democracy Green Movement. The Biden administration should not repeat that mistake. Now, more than ever, it is time for advocates of freedom to think seriously about a world after the Islamic Republic.

Foreign Affairs

Women are in the streets without scarves and standing up to the security forces. There is something new in the air

It is 2am on 21 September. The widespread protests in Iran are still going on for the fifth day in a row. I am 39 weeks and five days pregnant and my daughter is about to be born. I’m in California in the US, but I feel dizzy. There is so much going on in my birth country.

Five days before, Mahsa Amini, or as her mother called her, Zhina – “life giving” in Kurdish language – died after she was arrested by the hijab/morality police in Tehran for “bad hijab” – allegedly exposing too much of her hair or neck. She was a 22 year old woman from Saqez, a town in Kurdistan Province and she was visiting Tehran with her family. Her brother was with her when she was arrested. A few hours after her arrest she was taken to Kasra hospital where she later died.

The Islamic Republic of Iran denies harming Mahsa and claims she died of heart failure. But witnesses have said she was beaten. All for not wanting to wear a scarf.

Security forces took her body to Saqez overnight and buried her in haste in the morning. People of Saqez gathered at the funeral and didn’t leave the streets afterwards. Kurdish women took their scarves off in protest and Kurdish men stood strong in solidarity with the women chanting “Killed for a veil, how much more humiliation?” From there, protests spread to the rest of the country and cities around the world like a wildfire.

Now, the Islamic Republic of Iran is shutting down the internet and filtering Instagram so there is no witness to the brutality they are using to suppress the protests.

In the maternity unit I watch Ebrahimi Raisi, the sitting president, give a speech at the UN. The nurse comes in to check my blood pressure and move the baby monitor. Everything is fine. From her point of view, life is going on pretty much as normal. Once she leaves I cry. First just tears are running down my face and then I start sobbing. My husband comes to the bedside. “Are you having painful contractions?” I shake my head. “What’s wrong?” I squeeze his hand for a bit until I can articulate it: “Zhina didn’t do anything wrong. None of us did. But we were punished and humiliated every day. We didn’t deserve that.”

That’s why people of Iran are outraged. That’s why they are in the streets despite knowing that they might get beaten, shot or killed. But that’s also why they are not holding back their anger anymore. I saw videos of people beating security officers and overturning police cars in the past two days and there was part of me that felt joyous. The same part of me who had watched the morality police drag women on the ground because they had “improper clothing” according to Islam.

The nurse tiptoes in the dark past midnight to check on me one more time. I tell her I am awake. “Contractions keeping you up?” “No,” but I don’t explain. It’s going to take a while if I do. It is hard for many people to even imagine that somewhere in the world women are forced to wear scarves from the age of seven. No scarf meant no education and no job. There are security officers in schools and official buildings whose job is to check your clothing before you go in and there are morality police to check your clothing, everywhere, every day. It is humiliating.

But that’s not the only reason for the protests. People are fed up with poverty, the corruption, mismanagement of natural resources, and 40 years of oppression of everyone, especially religious and ethnic minorities and women. The chants in the streets are “death to dictator” and “death to Khamenei”, Iran’s supreme leader. People want the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

I hear a baby’s cry from another room. Another human being is born. I was a teenager when I decided to leave Iran because I realised I never want to bring a human being, especially another girl, into this world in Iran. My daughter is lucky. She will be born in the US. I’m know I’m going to call her Roshan, “bright” in Persian and Azerbaijani. She is going to bring light to our lives.

When my daughter is born and placed on my chest, I cry for a long time. I cry for Mahsa, for all the women who have been imprisoned for protesting against compulsory hijab and for all the women who had to live under the Sharia law in Iran and elsewhere.

“Zan, Zhian, Azadi”, people chant in the streets of Iran, “Woman, Life, Liberty.” My friend in Iran tells me there is a growing self confidence and pride in women. They are everywhere in the streets without scarves, burning their scarves, standing up to the security forces that are there to suppress them and their rights. There is something new in the air.

My daughter’s birth is not the only one happening today. Deep in my heart, I am confident that something new is born from Zhina’s death. As she was a Phoenix and from her ashes Iranian woman will rise today, and perhaps other Middle Eastern women will follow.


By Elnaz Sarbar

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

Since 2014, Masih Alinejad has published videos of Iranian women removing their head scarves. When a twenty-two-year-old died last week in the morality police’s custody, the country exploded.

By Dexter Filkins

September 24, 2022

Women from across Iran are pulling off their hijabs and lighting them on fire, flouting the country’s gray-bearded theocrats in dramatic scenes of a population struggling to set itself free. Of all the astonishments pouring forth from the Islamic Republic, perhaps the most remarkable is the fact that Iran was brought to this point, at least in part, by an unpaid forty-six-year-old mother working from an F.B.I. safehouse in New York City.

Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist who was driven into exile thirteen years ago, has helped galvanize the country’s women, amassing some ten million followers on her social-media sites and spurring them to trash the most potent symbol of the regime’s legalized gender-apartheid: the hijab, the hair covering mandated for every adult woman.

Most of Alinejad’s followers live in Iran, making her one of the country’s most powerful voices. Since 2014, she has worked a simple formula to devastating effect. She has called on women inside Iran to record themselves defying the hijab rule and to send her the evidence. Thousands of women have obliged, and Alinejad has posted videos and photos of them showing their hair to accounts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Those sites are blocked by the country’s dictatorship, but, by making use of virtual private networks, many Iranians have seen them anyway. Millions have been able to witness the bravery of their fellow-citizens and to see how widely their views are shared—which, in the stifling environment of modern Iran, would otherwise be impossible.

Last week, when protests exploded following the death of Mahsa Amini, who appears to have been beaten to death by the regime’s morality police, Alinejad saw years of organizing finally coming to fruition. Some of the videos from Iran have been electrifying, with women dancing and pirouetting before tossing their hijabs onto bonfires. “It’s happening—it’s really happening—and women are leading the way,’’ Alinejad told me when I met her this week. “The hijab is the tool the regime uses to control the women and, through them, Iranian society.”

Karim Sadjadpour, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C., told me that as the popular legitimacy of the Iranian regime has crumbled, its leaders have clung to antiquated concepts of female modesty to prop it up. “There are three ideological pillars left of the Islamic Republic,” he told me. “Death to America, death to Israel, and the hijab. Masih understands that the hijab is the weakest pillar of the three. Not even Iran’s partners in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, or Caracas will defend it.”

Iranian law dictates that any woman who has passed puberty must cover her hair down to the last strand and wear loose-fitting clothing. The morality police routinely arrest women for not wearing a hijab or for not wearing one properly; Amini, whose death sparked the protests, was taken into custody for purportedly allowing a few pieces of hair to slip out. Officials claimed that Amini, who was twenty-two, died of a heart attack while in custody. Her father told the BBC that Amini had been in perfect health. “[The authorities] are lying,’’ he said.

In 2014, she moved to New York, and began to pressure the Iranian regime from the outside using social media. That year, she launched her first campaign, called “My Stealthy Freedom,” in which she encouraged women to videotape themselves doing harmless but prohibited things, such as taking off their hijabs. Her efforts expanded from there. “For three decades, Iranian women endured daily indignities and had no recourse,’’ Sadjadpour said. “Today, they can film their harassers and abusers and send it to Masih, and millions of people will see it.”

The regime has been watching, too. In July, 2021, the F.B.I. arrested an Iranian national in California for plotting to kidnap Alinejad and take her to Venezuela, where she would have been transferred to Iran, presumably to face imprisonment or death. A year later, F.B.I. agents arrested a man carrying a Kalashnikov rifle outside her home, in Brooklyn; he was allegedly sent by the regime to kill her. Alinejad and her husband, Kambiz Foroohar, a former reporter for Bloomberg whom she married in 2014, have been living in F.B.I. safehouses ever since. They have had to switch locations seven times.

Alinejad now rarely appears in public. Earlier this week, she led a crowd protesting the arrival of the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, at the United Nations. The next day, she met me in a coffee shop on a busy corner. The F.B.I. is so worried about Iranian agents stalking her that they regard any encounter with another Iranian as a cause for alarm; when a friendly Iranian recognized her inside, Alinejad greeted the man warmly and then motioned for me to go. “Let’s get out of here,’’ she said.

The Iranian regime has also tried to squeeze Alinejad from inside Iran. In 2018, her sister Mina disavowed her on state television; Alinejad told me that Mina is married to a Revolutionary Guard officer and a true believer in the Revolution. Soon after, Alinjead’s brother Ali was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with government-backed efforts to kidnap her. In 2019, Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, the head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, announced that sending a video to Alinejad was a crime punishable by up to ten years in jail. She is routinely denounced as a traitor and a stooge of foreign powers on state-television programs. “I have never taken any money from a foreign government,” she told me. (Alinejad works for Voice of America, which is funded by the U.S. government, but she says her activism is separate from her work for the organization.)

When I sat with her, Alinejad was distracted by the deluge of videos and texts she was receiving from supporters in Iran. She showed me her phone and scrolled through some of the day’s offerings: a video of a young girl lying in a pool of blood after having been apparently shot, another of a protester being beaten by police, and another of a woman throwing her hijab onto a fire.

The regime is stepping up its efforts to crush the protests, much as it did in 2017 and 2019, when similar outbursts appeared to threaten its hold. On-the-ground reports have been difficult to verify independently; cell service and Internet access have been cut off or slowed down in many parts of the country. Videos have shown crowds confronting police and the Basij, the regime’s plainclothes militiamen, chanting “Death to the Supreme Leader!” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” Hundreds of protesters have been arrested, including many journalists. One video showed a crowd defacing a billboard depicting Qassem Suleimani, the famed commander of the Quds force and a national hero, who was killed in a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump in early 2020.

The scenes captured on video echoed my own experience during a trip to Iran not long after Suleimani’s assassination. Among the dozens of Iranians I spoke to, the regime appeared to have lost almost all legitimacy. The little support that existed seemed to come almost entirely from people, such as government employees, who benefitted directly from the regime’s largesse. Checkpoints run by Baji militiamen, who stopped and searched cars and people randomly, were ubiquitous.

I asked Alinejad whether she felt responsible for any of the deaths, or for the treatment of the many women who have been beaten and imprisoned. “It is very difficult,” she said. “So many women are going to jail because of what I urged them to do. I can’t believe I am doing this.” She began to cry. Soon, though, she was checking her phone again, and the videos and messages were rolling in. “I’m leading this movement,” she said, standing outside the coffee shop. “The Iranian regime will be brought down by women. I believe this.” ♦

This article has been updated to include details about Masih Alinejad’s work for Voice of America.


By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — The tears come quickly to Masih Alinejad when she talks about the messages she’s received in recent days from women in Iran protesting against their government after a young woman died in police custody over a violation of the country’s strict religious dress code.

They talk about the risks, possibly fatal ones, in facing off against government forces that have a long history of cracking down on dissent. They share stories of saying goodbye to their parents, possibly for the last time. They send videos of confrontations with police, of women removing their state-mandated head coverings and cutting their hair.

According to a tally by The Associated Press, at least 11 people have been killed since protests began earlier this month after the funeral of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in custody after being detained by Iran’s morality police. State media has said the toll could be as high as 35.

“I feel the anger of people right now through their text messages,” Alinejad told The Associated Press in New York City, where the 46-year-old opposition activist and writer in exile has lived since fleeing Iran following the 2009 election.

“They have been ignored for years and years,” she said. “That is why they are angry. Iranian women are furious now.”

Amini’s death spurred this latest explosion of outrage. She had been detained Sept. 13 for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in violation of strictures demanding women in public wear the Islamic headscarves. She died three days later in police custody; authorities said she had a heart attack but hadn’t been harmed. Her family has disputed that, leading to the public outcry.

Protests started after her Sept. 17 funeral, and have taken place in more than a dozen cities. The Iranian government has pushed back, clashing with demonstrators and clamping down on internet access.

Alinejad shares the outrage of the protesters; for more than a decade she has been an outspoken critic of the theocracy that rules the country and its control over women through the required wearing of the hijab and other measures. In 2014, she started My Stealthy Freedom, an online effort encouraging Iranian women to show images of themselves without hijabs.

“Let me make it clear that Iranian women who are facing guns and bullets right now in the streets, they’re not protesting against compulsory hijab like just a small piece of cloth. Not at all,” she said.

“They are protesting against one of the most visible symbols of oppression. They are protesting against the whole regime.”

Alinejad, who grew up following the rules on religious coverings in the small Iranian town where she was born, began pushing back against being forced to don certain garments when she was a teenager.

But even she, who now displays her full head of curly hair as a matter of course, didn’t find it easy to overcome a lifetime of conditioning.

“It was not easy to put it away, like overnight,” she said. “It took three years for me, even outside Iran, to take off my hijab.”

She said the first time she went out without a religious covering, in Lebanon, she saw a police officer and had a panic attack. “I thought the police are going to arrest me.”

Her activism has made her no fans among Iranian officials and supporters of the government.

Last year, an Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network were charged in federal court in Manhattan with a plot to kidnap her and take her back to Iran. Officials in Iran have denied it. In August, an armed man was arrested after being seen hanging around Alinejad’s Brooklyn home and trying to open the front door.

She’s committed to her cause, though, and supporting those in Iran, women and men, who are engaged in the protests. She would love to see more support from those in the West.

“We deserve the same freedom,” she said. “We are fighting for our dignity. We are fighting for the same slogan — My body, my choice.”

She worries what will happen to the demonstrators in Iran as the government takes action to remain in control and shut down dissent, if there is no outside pressure.

“My fear is that if the world, the democratic countries don’t take action, the Iranian regime will kill more people,” she said, scrolling through her phone to show images of young people she says have already been killed in the current wave of protest.

She called the women in the protests warriors and “true feminists.”

“These are the women of suffragists risking their lives, facing guns and bullets,” she said.

But even if, as has happened in the past, the government exerts enough control to quiet the protests down, it won’t make the dissent go away, she said.

The “Iranian people made their decision,” she said. “Whether the regime cracks down on the protests, whether they shut down the internet, people of Iran won’t give up. … The anger is there.”


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