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

By INNA SHEVCHENKO
Charlie Hebdo

This is the #MeToo of clothing harassment. Voices of Middle Eastern women living in the West—or not—who had to wear hijab—or still do—are rising. They claim that the Islamic veil is not a harmless trivial garment and even less a freedom for women. Hoping to be heard by some feminists who repeat like a mantra that the veil is a choice.

It all started as a new episode of intellectual cowardice and capitulation to accusations of Islamophobia. After the Canadian Medical Association Journal published a photo of children on its cover in which a little girl was wearing hijab, pediatric surgeon Dr. Sherif Emil sent a letter to the editorial team entitled “Do not use an instrument of oppression as a symbol of diversity and inclusion.” The doctor takes issue with the commonplace use of such images in Canada’s largest medical journal: “It has become ‘liberal’ to see hijab as a symbol of diversity and inclusion… Hijab, niqab and burka are instruments of oppression for millions of girls and women around the world who are not allowed to make a choice.” The National Council of Canadian Muslims called for the immediate removal of the text from the journal’s website. The letter was immediately removed and the editor in cheif apologized for making the doctor’s “wrong, hurtful and offensive” words public.

This time, however, the cowardice of some has revealed, in contrast, the bravery of many others. Many Middle Eastern women living in the West reacted to the incident, launching a major campaign on social networks and demanding that they be listened to on issues that affect their lives, such as the religious dress code. The #LetUsTalk campaign went viral within days.

“In Iran I was told if I don’t wear hijab, I get kicked out from school, I get jailed, lashes, beaten up, and kicked out from my country. In the West I’m told, sharing my story will cause Islamophobia. I’m a woman from Middle East and I am scared of Islamic ideology. Let us talk.” It is with this tweet that the famous Iranian activist against the mandatory hijab, Masih Alinejad, reacted to the censorship of the doctor’s letter. With these words, accompanied by a childhood photo of herself wearing hijab, she inspired an avalanche of similar confessions. Her tweet was liked by more than 30,000 people and the hashtag #LetUsTalk began to spread.

“I used to secretly remove my hijab just to feel the air in my hair. This ideology stole my life,” tweeted an exiled Saudi woman, Rana Ahmad. “Another day in Germany, where I walk under the sun without this hijab that makes me feel like a second-class citizen, like I did when I was in Saudi Arabia…,” wrote another exiled Saudi woman, Loujain. “In Yemen, I was forced to wear the hijab at the age of six and the niqab at the age of thirteen, and when I decided to take it off, half of my family abandoned me, and then when I took off the hijab and the abaya, I lost everything,” confesses Basma Nasser, who now lives in France.

Hundreds of similar stories are now being posted and shared on Twitter, contradicting both the defenders of Islamism, who stage Islamophobia trials, and some Western feminists, who have blindly adopted the mantra “hijab is a choice.”

To be honest, I didn’t expect my message to create such a wave around the world,” Masih Alinejad confessed to Charlie. This time it’s not just Iranian women speaking out. I see how this campaign has united many women from Muslim countries or Muslim communities in the West. All these stories are full of pain. We are trying to make the rest of the world understand that we, the women who have lived under Sharia law, are the ones who know the most about Islamic ideologies and that we have the right to be afraid of all the brutality we have suffered. I have the right to tell my story!”

They want to be able to tell their stories without being accused of Islamophobia.

But they also want to be heard by Western feminists, many of whom have taken up sexist religious rules of modesty and disguised them as symbols of “empowerment”. “#LetUsTalk is aimed at Westerners, especially feminists, asking them to stand in solidarity with women oppressed by Islamic law,” another Iranian woman, who resides in France, Aghdas Khanoom (pseudonym), tells Charlie. “I have been silenced in my country, and now in the free world. And it is even more painful.” A sentiment also shared by Shammi Haque, a Bangladeshi journalist exiled in Germany: “I decided to participate in this campaign in the hope that Western feminists would understand our pain and suffering, that they would understand what the veil/hijab really means and stop promoting it. In the name of diversity or to protect minorities, German feminists are blinded by their privilege.” Basma Nasser, a Yemeni student exiled in France, also insists that “there are some political currents in France that consider hijab as a choice and see it as an Arab culture, which is not true; how can we say that hijab is a ‘personal choice’, if there are no other options, if rebellion against hijab is a crime in many countries.”

And while in the West rebellion against hijab is not a crime under the law, confessions posted via #LetUsTalk reveal that many women do not experience hijab as a “choice” in Western countries either. “I converted to Islam when I was 28. I fully accepted all the rules and practices. Hijab was never an option. I never questioned it until the end of my marriage, when I started to take it off sometimes when I was alone. When my husband found out, he told me it was grounds for divorce,” tweets Deborah from the UK. “In Canada, I was forced to wear hijab at age 9, the niqab at age 19. I was disowned and threatened with death because I choose what I wear on my body,” says Yasmine Mohammed, who escaped a forced marriage and became a women’s rights activist. She points out that in the West, women in Muslim communities can be forced to cover themselves not by law but by devious methods, “including being told that only whores don’t cover themselves and being threatened with burning in hell for eternity.”

Indeed, while Iranian women continue to be imprisoned for removing their hijab, while Afghan women resist the Taliban who are once again erasing women from public space, in the West we are busy promoting the wearing of hijab, in fashion, in advertising, and in the media, all the while patting ourselves on the back for our tolerance… And Middle Eastern women in the West who dare to speak out against the dress code of modesty are silenced by the Islamists on the right, and by the “progressives” on the left. Let them speak!

CHARLIE HEBDO

With the abrupt decision by Biden to withdraw from Afghanistan, people of this country are shocked and heart-broken. After 20 years, Taliban is back and contrary to their claims that “they have changed”, many Afghans, especially women whom we have talked to persisted in telling us that the Taliban have not changed, but are rather deceiving the world with this rhetoric.

Afghan women will bear the brunt of Taliban’s infamous brutality. In the aftermath of Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, many Afghan women took to social media to air their frustration, sorrow and hopelessness.

One of these videos belongs to this 23-year-old Afghan woman whose teary-eyed video that we subtitled (https://twitter.com/AlinejadMasih/status/1426195246694780930) went viral. In that video she said “We do not count because we were born in Afghanistan. We will die in history slowly”.

We have interviewed this young Afghan girl. Just like many other Afghan women, she was quick to point out that the international community must not believe Taliban’s charm offensive that it had changed. “Do not believe the lies of Taliban. I’m 23. Taliban forcibly marry women like me to their fighters. The spokesman of Taliban has an account on Twitter. For what? For spreading their lies in the world”, she said with teary eyes.

In this ground-breaking interview, she imploded the international community not to remain indifferent to the plight of Afghan women as their dreams have been shattered.

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In 2013, millions of Iranians voted for Hassan Rouhani as president, after eight years under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During the campaign, supporters of Rouhani advocated for what they called a new “Hope Government.” His platform offered a series of promises: His administration would improve the economic situation and Iran’s relationship with the world, remove sanctions, eliminate limitations and restrictions on cultural activities, respect the rights of citizens, and engage women in public life and decision making. Furthermore, he promised to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs in his new cabinet.

Today, as we approach the end of Rouhani’s government, how should historians and scholars evaluate the economic, political, and social situation over the last eight years? The issues of women’s political participation and social freedom, which were promised by Rouhani, especially during his first campaign, are of particular importance in this regard.

Women’s political participation in decision making

All of the members of Rouhani’s cabinet during the eight years of his presidency were men. In his first term he only appointed three women as deputies: Masoumeh Ebtekar at the Department of Environment, Elham Aminzadeh as the president’s legal deputy, and Shahindokht Molaverdi as the deputy for women and family affairs. Soon after her appointment, Aminzadeh was replaced by a man, Majid Ansari. Molavardi, in turn, resigned in 2017. During Rouhani’s second term, there were two female deputies in the cabinet, for women and family affairs and the legal deputy.

President Rouhani had promised to establish a Ministry of Women’s Affairs, but instead appointed Molaverdi as his deputy for family and women’s issues. In 2017, when Ms. Molaverdi expressed her ideas regarding women’s issues, she was not only removed from her job, but also sentenced to two and half years in prisonin December 2020. She was charged with “providing classified information and documents … with the aim of disrupting the security of the country” and “propaganda against the state,” as well as “encouraging corruption and prostitution and encouraging individuals to commit sexual perversions.”

What actions and statements on the part of Ms. Molaverdi resulted in her prison sentence? One of the cases that led to the charges against her was “concluding a contract with the United Nations Population Fund.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a proponent of population growth, opposes the U.N. Population Fund, which among other activities provides access to birth control. Ms. Molaverdi was also pursued for her support for the UNESCO Document 2030 UNESCO and Sustainable Development Goals, which she defended as a way to educate girls and boys equally. But Ayatollah Khamenei, for his part, was a serious critic of the document.

Another “criminal action” by Ms. Molaverdi was her praise for the Girls of Enghelab Street and her consideration of their protest movement as a “civil protest.” This statement made her the focus of considerable conservative criticism.

Ms. Molaverdi’s efforts at reform did not come to fruition and instead she paid a heavy price — she was sentenced to prison — while President Rouhani remained silent.

Closing women’s magazines and blogs and arresting journalists and activists

In Iran, activities in support of women’s rights, such as writing articles or starting campaigns, associations, or women’s clubs that criticize the laws, is considered a major crime and a threat to national security. During Rouhani’s campaign in 2013, women were promised more freedom to express their concerns and needs — they were promised that the situation would change.

After eight years of Rouhani’s presidency, however, women’s rights activists do not have the right to their own publications or to cover women’s issues. Several publications have been banned and there are many examples of female journalists and human rights activists who have been arrested: Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer imprisoned in 2018, was given a 38-year sentence for defending women’s rights activists. Narges Mohammadi, a civil rights activist, was imprisoned from 2016-20. Bahareh Hedayat served 6.5 years in prison (from 2010-16) for co-founding the peaceful “One Million Signatures” campaign to end gender-based discrimination and is now sentenced to four more years for peaceful protests. Solmaz Ekdar, a journalist, social activist, and defender of children’s and women’s rights, was arrested in June 2015; she has a history of working with the newspapers Shargh and Bahar. Minoo Mortazi Langroudi, a women’s rights activist from the Mothers of Peace Forum and a member of the National Religious Activists Council, has been sentenced to six years in prison and two years of deprivation for political and civil activities. The number of women journalists and human rights activists who have been arrested and sentenced to prison in Iran remains far too high, and while it may not have increased during Rouhani’s government, it certainly has not decreased either.

The magazine Zane Ruz (“Today’s Women”) was banned just for running a story about cohabitation, a practice commonly referred to as “white marriage.” In cyberspace, women’s rights activists and audiences also witnessed frequent filtering of websites. For example, the sites for the “Feminist School” of ZanestanChange for Equality, the Equal Family Law, and Bridges for Women were among a number that were filtered and closed by court authority. The result of banning and filtering these sites was to limit women’s rights activists from even peacefully expressing their ideas and having debates online.

Serial acid attacks against women with “bad hejab

In the fall of 2014 in Isfahan, a series of attacks were carried out against women by unknown motorcyclists, who sprayed their heads and faces with acid. The attackers were encouraged by some Friday Imams who argued that as Muslims they were responsible and should take action to prevent “un-Islamic” behavior by women wearing “bad hejab” in public. Women’s rights activists in Iran reported that at least 460 women have been attacked with acid, and some of the victims’ faces were completely damaged.

campaign began in Iran against the acid attacks. One of the campaign’s speakers told me in a phone call, “None of attackers has been arrested since we think it was organized and supported by the state. At least we can say no effective investigation have been taken to identify the criminals.” Photos and video footage of the victims have been posted on social media, in which they explain how they suddenly got acid sprayed in their faces. Among the victims were girls as young as two years old.

What was unnatural and surprising was the reaction of government officials: Instead of investigating or arresting the criminals — those carrying out the acid attacks — the women activists who started the campaign against the attacks were themselves arrested. Indeed, Rouhani’s government and other “reformist” decision makers did not even mention the acid attacks, as if nothing had happened. But the Revolutionary Guards arrested the women’s rights activists who started the campaign against the acid attacks and they were sentenced to prison. For example, the student and women’s rights activists Fereshteh Toosi, Parastoo Beiranvand, Zahra Khandan, Mahdieh Golrou, and Soha Morteza’i were arrested in the winter of 2014, after protesting against the serial acid attacks.

Iran’s uncertain future

Iranians have repeatedly been given hope that reform could lead to a better future, one with economic progress, less inflation, and a peaceful relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world. But time and again these hopes have been dashed. The reform movement that began in 1997 with the election of Mohammad Khatami is now ending with Rouhani’s presidency. Today we have enough evidence to say confidently that even if a real reformist government were elected, it would not have the power to carry out real reforms. The record of the Rouhani government over the past eight years is the reason a majority of Iranian women and men, including those from a wide range of social, cultural, and religious backgrounds, have decided not to vote in this year’s presidential election, set to be held on June 18. Going forward, we can expect to see more violations of women’s and civil rights, more poverty, more people arrested and sent to prison, as well as more civil disobedience and more popular protests. The trajectory is clear. The only question is how long it will continue and how it will end.

Dr. Fariba Parsa specializes in the political ideologies of democracy and civil movements in Iran. She is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Iran Program, works at Yorktown System Groups as a Farsi instructor, and is the founder and president of the nonprofit Women’s E-Learning in Leadership (WELL). The views expressed in this piece are her own.

Fariba Parsa

Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

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