By Alyssa Rosenberg and Masih Alinejad
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.
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.”
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.”