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


Western governments must show solidarity with Iranian human rights activists and not abandon them for the sake of commercial activities with a regime that has abysmal record on human rights, anti-compulsory hijab campaigner Masih Alinejad, said at an panel for members of the Swedish Parliament.

Speaking alongside Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur, Alinejad, the founder of My Stealthy Freedom/White Wednesdays campaigns against compulsory hijab in Iran, condemned the election of the Islamic Republic, in a secret ballot, to UN’s Commission on Status of Women, which works to be the global champion for gender equality.

“A regime that doesn’t allow its women to make decisions for their own body has been elected by UN to its top body to monitor condition of women globally,” Alinejad said. “This is an insult to Iranian women who are in jail & to millions of others who get beaten up by the same regime”

Alinejad urged the EU to Islamic Republic to give a true accounting of the events surrounding the November 2019 protests during which the security forces killed more than 1,500 protesters. The Islamic Republic is just like the Islamic State, Alinejad said, resorting to brutal force to enforce a religious dictatorship.

“How can you reform ISIS”, she said. “The Islamic Republic has many characteristics similar to ISIS. Just like ISIS, it kills dissidents, takes dual nationals hostage, flogs people who don’t practice Islam, is the biggest enemy of women, issues fatwas on dissidents and many more.”

Alinejad said she was in touch with tens of mothers who had lost their loved ones during the protests. “If your own children were killed by an oppressive regime for the crime of protesting, what would you do?” she said. “Would you shake hands with the killers of your children? Would you negotiate trade deals with them?”

MASIH ALINEJAD CONDEMNS ISLAMIC REPUBLIC’S ELECTION TO UN’S WOMEN’S RIGHTS COMMISSION

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In Iran, women are sentenced to long prison terms only for taking off their veils for a short time. Iranian women also get their faces disfigured for the same reason. Journalist Suzanne Gottfarb writes about those who risk their lives because they turn out to be bareheaded.

Suzanne Gottfarb

Yasman Ariani, 16 years in prison.

Monireh Arabshali, 16 years in prison.

Mojgan Keshavarz, 5.5 years in prison.

Rahele Ahmadi, 4.5 years in prison.

Saba Kordafshar, 24 years in prison.

These are some of the women imprisoned in Iran. Their only crime is that they have filmed themselves bareheaded and sent their videos to the exile and journalist Masih Alinejad, who has made it their life’s work to be the voice of these women. Masih, who has more than five million followers on social media, publishes these videos in his TV show “Tablet – voice of America”.

In Iran, Masih was a political journalist but asked so oppositional questions that she was eventually forced to leave her homeland. In 2014, she started the protest movement My Stolen Freedom in New York, followed by White Wednesday, My camera is my weapon and most recently Men in hijab, where men dressed in hijab stand next to their bareheaded wives, sisters and mothers. It started with Masih photoshopping a picture of Iran’s foreign minister wearing a hijab. That image received an incredible 13 million views.

In other words, Masih has become a nail in the coffin of the regime and a factor of power to be reckoned with. The chairman of the Revolutionary Court has, in his own high person, felt compelled to go out on Iranian state television to warn women. Anyone who takes off his veil and sends his videos to Masih risks imprisonment for between one and ten years.

About this, the Swedish-Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson has made a documentary, “Hear my voice – the revolution of the veil”, which is available on Svt.play and is sold to several countries.

“More and more people are being imprisoned, more and more people are being executed in Iran,” says Nahid, who herself fled to Sweden from Iran after the revolution in 1979, when her two younger brothers, aged 15 and 17, were imprisoned. The 17-year-old brother was executed.

– The regime in Iran is no better than IS. They oppress, kidnap, mutilate, whip, imprison and execute their own citizens. This is the most political film I’ve made.

Women in Iran are also attacked with acid. The young and radiantly beautiful Masoumeh Atai is now blind with a disfigured face.

– I have twelve videos from women who have been subjected to acid attacks, Masih says on the phone from New York.

– Some have been attacked by strangers on the street because they did not wear the hijab. In other cases, it is family members who, because of divorce and the like, have punished them in this brutal way. The most horrible thing is that men who throw acid go free, while women are sentenced to long prison terms just because they claim their human right to rule over their own bodies.

In Iran, gender apartheid prevails . You are oppressed only by being born a woman. A woman is not allowed to dress as she pleases, not to sing or dance, not to cycle, swim or play football. Because of his activities, Masih receives daily death threats. Iranian men threaten to throw acid in her face, to skin her, to slaughter her.

And the regime has put a price on her obsessive-compulsive disorder, where the large curly hair adorned with a flower has become a symbol of women’s freedom. Her autobiography consistently bears the title “The wind in my hair”. Now Masih’s older brother Ali has also been sentenced to eight years in prison.

– They tried to get him to lure me to Turkey, where I would be taken on to Iran to stand trial, she says, but he refused. Instead, he warned me. That’s his only crime. He is not politically active in any way. He has two small children. They are holding him hostage to keep me quiet.

Masih gets overwhelmed by videos. From International Women’s Day on March 8, bareheaded women can be seen handing out flowers in the subway. Several of them are now in prison.

A mother shouts out in despair after her daughter received a long sentence: “Women who take off their veils spend their best years in prison,” she shouts. “Why are you silent around the world?” Because of this video, she herself was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison.

But during Sweden’s only hijab demonstration, Swedish feminists in 2013, led by Gudrun Schyman – then spokesperson for the Feminist Initiative – instead put on veils and demonstrated for the right to wear the hijab without being harassed.

– The world is truly upside down, says Nahid Persson. Of course I am for religious freedom. Adult women get to decide for themselves. But I believe that the hijab is an oppressive garment, which, for example, should not be allowed for minors in schools.

Men in Iran are freer but only as long as they do not oppose themselves. Inside a prison, Kurdish Shahram Akmadi films with a smuggled mobile phone. He is sentenced to death for “warfare against God.” His brother has already been executed. And in December last year, Nahid’s good friend, the journalist Ruhollah Zam, was hanged, publishing news critical of the regime from his platform in Paris.

– He was tricked into going to Iraq, where he was kidnapped, Nahid says. That he was the son of a mullah did not save his life.

Right now, the Swedish-Iranian researcher Ahmadreza Djalali is also in solitary confinement in Iran after a death sentence for alleged espionage.

– Djalali’s mother has also contacted me and asked me to be her voice, Masih says.

– Iran calls the United States the great Satan and Israel the little Satan. But it is not them but us, the Iranian women, who are the enemies of the regime. Change must come from the people. Not from us activists. A flower does not make a garden. But if everyone sows a seed, the world will be full of flowers.

Author and journalist.

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