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.
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.