Iranian women’s rights activist @AlinejadMasih has been appointed as a member of the Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC), an independent consultative body of the G7 on gender equality and women’s empowerment issues which provides specific recommendations to the G7 Leaders. “Your extensive expertise, achievements, and dedication to advancing gender equality will significantly contribute to our collective efforts in promoting women’s empowerment and fostering a more inclusive society,” Eugenia Roccella, the Equal Opportunities Minister of Italy – the rotating president of the G7 – said in a letter to Alinejad.

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.’ ”

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?”

Time

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.

Newyorker

Two years after the Islamic Republic brutally cracked down on peaceful protests in November 2019, killing more than 1500 people, according to Reuters, the families of the victims are now facing pressure from the regime to stop speaking out about the death of their loved ones.

Mother of Amirhossein Zarezadeh, a 19 year old boy who was killed in November, reported how 50 security agents turned up at an event held on Nov. 18, to commemorate her son’s death. She said she would not be intimidated to keep silent.

 “I will write everything on a banner,” she said during a livestream on Instagram. “I will write that Khamenei is responsible for the murder of our children.” 

During the livestream, she said the security forces followed the family’s car after the event.

Mother of Amirhossein Zarezaded said that Khamanei is responsible for death of her son

There was also a show of heavy presence of police and security forces in another mourning ceremony held on November 18 in Malat village, in the Gilan province in north of Iran, for Pejman Gholipour, an 18 year old boy killed by five bullets. In a video of the event, Mahboubeh Ramazani, mother of Pejman, cries on her son’s grave: “God, they say heaven shakes when a mother cries. I have been crying for two years. Why have you forsaken me?”

Mahboubeh Ramazani at the grave of her son, Pejman Gholipour, an 18 year killed by five bullets in November 2019

Many mourners showed up at the event despite the heavy police presence, according to the person who recorded this video.

“They arrested people and confiscated phones,” he said.  “They closed the roads in and out of the village. Agents were present in numbers and no one dared to record. I sent this video to a family member as soon as I recorded it in case an agent forced me to delete it, which was actually what happened. I later recovered it from my family.”

Mahboubeh and her family were temporarily detained by the security forces. Although they were later released, their cell phones were confiscated.

Mahnaz Karimi, mother of Vahid Damvar who was killed by a bullet in the back of his neck, said that an agent was posted in front of their house a week before the anniversary of his son’s death. The security agents secretly took down a large photograph of Vahid that was hung like a banner from the side of the house when the family was not at home, accessing their roof by going through their neighbor’s house.

“They don’t want us to even hang their pictures. They are afraid of the dead,” Karimi said in a livestream on Instagram with Masih Alinehjad. On the day of the anniversary, the security agents video recorded those present at her son’s grave site, to intimidate the attendees. The agents also frisked Karimi and other members of her family and confiscated their cell phones to stop them from recording the ceremony.

Morteza Damvar, father of Vahid Damvar, says the security agents took away banners hung from their house

Since 2019, a group of more than 20 mothers, whose children were killed in the protests of November 2019, have found each other. Initially they were “Mourning Mothers” who found comfort and solace in each other but now they are “Mothers for Justice” who support each other and  wear a dark blue ribbon around their wrist as a symbol of their demand for justice.

Sakineh Ahmadi, mother of Ebrahim Ketabdar who was shot dead in front of his store, said the security agents forcefully cut the blue ribbon from her wrist. Mahboubeh Ramazani and Mahnaz Karimi have also reported the same harassment by the security agents. One agent told Karimi that he will put the ribbon in her file as evidence of her “crime”. 

“I am not afraid of prison. I am not afraid of death,” she responded.

Sevda, six years old daughter of Ebrahim Ketabdar, has tied a dark blue ribbon around her wrist as a symbol of her demand for justice

Islamic Republic has banned families from talking to the media based outside the country. Those who do,  face arrest and prison. Manouchehr Bakhtiari, father of Pouya Bakhtiari,  Mohsen Ghanavati, brother of Mohammad Hossein Ghanavati, Badrieh Hamidavi, mother of Ali Tamimi are all in prison for this “crime.” Other families were told if they give interviews to the media outside Iran “their other children might die in an accident or another incident.” 

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By Elnaz Sarbar

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


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