Masih Alinejad and Moudi Aljohani come from two different countries and circumstances, but both share one reality: They can never return home. Their activism has forced them into exile, and yet they remain driven to affect change even as they adjust to life in the United States.
Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and activist, started a Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom,” in 2014 to protest Iran’s compulsory public hijab lawfor women and girls. The campaign went viral and, Alinejad said, women continue to send videos to her showing themselves without a hijab, documenting harassment on the streets and much more.
Alinejad has been speaking up for years. “I got kicked out of school for asking too many questions,” she said on Friday at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit in New York City, where she joined Saudi activist Aljohani and moderator Lydia Polgreen, Editor-in-Chief of HuffPost, to talk about life in exile. “I became a journalist and got kicked out of Parliament for asking too many questions. I was a columnist, I got kicked out of the newspaper. In the end, I got kicked out of my own beloved homeland. They kicked me out of Iran and I found my window. Social media is my window. I am there every day.”
Aljohani has funneled her anger, frustration and despair into changing male guardianship rules in Saudi Arabia. The women’s rights activist earned a law degree in Saudi Arabia and, after her male guardian granted her permission to study in the United States, she moved. When she returned home to visit, her family and her guardian changed their minds. “I was too Westernized, I guess,” she said. She was locked in her home for eight months before she escaped, and managed to get her passport and return to the U.S. in 2016. Unfortunately, she was not greeted with open arms there either.
She was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for two weeks and threatened with deportation. Officers urged her to sign documents for self-deportation. A lawyer and activist, she refused. Aljohani said because of that experience she can relate to other migrant women in the U.S. It also left an indelible mark.
“I left Saudi Arabia, left M.B.S. [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman]. Now I’m trapped here with Trump. Is there any place for me?” she asked.
Alinejad has not been immune to the ripple effects of the Trump administration either. The president’s refugee policy — often called the “Muslim ban” — has prevented her from seeing her son in the United Kingdom for 18 months. Alinejad’s family continues to be harassed in Iran, too.
“Trump’s ban only affects people like me. Activists, students, people who want to escape oppression,” she said.
Still, through the ban, through exile, through homesickness, Alinejad seems to draw fuel. As the Summit panel wrapped up, she waved a white hijab on a stick, replicating the actions of several women in Iran who are protesting the compulsory hijab law.
“I don’t want you to cry for us. I don’t want you to save us,” she said. “I want you to show your solidarity.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Gross.