One of the immediately striking things about Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad is her hair — a burst of brown curls with streaks of blonde at the ends.
But Alinejad didn’t always let her hair go free. Raised by a conservative family in a village in northern Iran, she spent her youth wearing the traditional hijab, in accordance with her family’s values — and with the country’s strict Islamic dress code. “My hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government,” Alinejad recalled at the Women in the World Salon in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
In 2014, Alinejad started a social movement against the compulsory rule with a Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom. After posting a picture of herself, standing and feeling the wind in her hair, other Iranian women soon sent her their own photos, which showed them casting off their headscarves. The page has since attracted over 900,000 “likes”; it’s written in both English and Farsi, serving as a hub for discussions about women’s rights and personal choice in Iranian society.
“For me, as a woman, it’s not just about a piece of cloth,” Alinejad said. “It’s about my own identity. It’s about myself — my true self.”
Of course, plenty of women across the Islamic world wear the hijab as a personal choice. Fashion label Dolce & Gabbana even recently debuted a hijab and abaya collection, and many have seen this as a sign of progress — not to mention a way to counteract the recent wave of Islamophobia precipitated by the attacks of ISIS and the ravings of Donald Trump.
Alinejad, in a discussion with author Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, said she has nothing against Islam, and pointed out that her mother and sister both wear the hijab. What she’s against, however, is the way that Iran’s rules on women’s dress – instituted after the 1979 revolution that transformed Iran to an Islamic Republic – is used as a tool to control women.
This is why she speaks out when women politicians like Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, don the hijab on visits to the country. Alinejad sees it as reinforcing a rule that many women in Iran oppose. “[Foreign politicians] obey the compulsory rule, and they wear hijab,” she said. “Why? Because they think hijab is required by law. Slavery used to be a law. Slavery used to be legal.”
A veteran journalist who’s been living in exile from her home country since 2009, Alinejad is no stranger to political defiance. At age 19, she was jailed in Iran for handing out leaflets speaking out against the government. In 2005, she was banned from the Iranian parliament. Later she covered Iran’s “Green Movement,” interviewing families whose children had been tortured and murdered by authorities amid massive protests over the controversial 2009 presidential election.
Just this week, Alinejad interviewed a TV news anchor in Iran, Sheena Shirani, who quit her job and fled the country because she’d faced constant sexual harassment from her boss. Alinejad said this was the same state-run TV station that once falsely reported that she had been publicly raped in London, in an attempt to discredit her My Stealthy Freedom campaign.
Alinejad’s own experience with the headscarf began when she was seven years old. Raised in a conservative household, she wore it inside the house and out, and it took her years to finally come to terms with letting it go. “It’s not as easy to take off your scarf and say, ‘This is me.’ No – I had to fight with my family. I had to fight with the society I grew up [in]. I had to fight with the government. I was worried about judgment,” she said. “For me, it was important to not shame my family.”
When she started My Stealthy Freedom, she was excited but also worried, knowing that the women whose photos she was publishing were taking a risk. Still, even without publicly shucking off the headscarf, she said that women in Iran often have to deal with strict regulations as well as crackdowns from religious authorities – all of which forces them to pursue their passions and transgressions in secret. “In Iran, if you want a woman not doing anything, just tell them, ‘Don’t do that’ – and then they do it,” Alinejad said. “We do everything underground.”
My Stealthy Freedom is her way of publicizing those private acts of liberation: “Now when they talk loud, they can’t say that we are stealthy, we are being secret. We are out there, and everyone around the world, they see a real face of Iran.”