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
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.’ ”