Masih Alinejad has paid a high price for letting her hair down and criticising her government. She’s been sentenced to prison, fled her native Iran and is unable to see her family. Here, she reveals why all she wants is to give women the choice to wear the hijab or not
Masih Alinejad unties her hair, and a sea of corkscrew curls cascades down her shoulders. It looks amazing, but the significance of Masih’s hair isn’t looks – it’s politics. Masih is an Iranian activist who has spent her life fighting for women’s rights in her country through one simple battle: a campaign against the law that says they have to wear a veil, or hijab, over their hair when they’re in public.
Since adolescence, Masih has been a thorn in the side of the ayatollahs who rule Iran. She’s complained and protested, spoken out and challenged, vociferously, all those who support the compulsory wearing of the hijab. When she was 19 she was arrested for anti-government activity by the morality police, held in prison without charge and, eventually, told by a judge that he had enough evidence to have her executed. That judge let her go, but you can’t help feeling that if he’d had a crystal ball, he might have taken a different course of action. Because Masih is a living nightmare for the Iranian authorities.
I’ve got too much hair, too much voice and I’m too much of a woman for them
In her book, The Wind in my Hair, out this week, Masih explains that girls in her country are raised to “keep their heads low, to be as unobtrusive as possible, and to be meek”; and she couldn’t be more different. “I’ve got too much hair, too much voice and I’m too much of a woman for them,” she says, and within two minutes of talking to her, I can see exactly what she means. Masih is fun, noisy and opinionated and, worst of all for the people who run her country, unafraid.
Even if Masih had been raised in an elite, educated Iranian family she would be exceptional, but the fact she grew up in rural poverty, in the tiny village of Ghomikola in Mazandaran in northern Iran, makes her phenomenal. Her father was a street pedlar, her mother – who cannot read or write – raised six children in a home with one room that served as sleeping, eating and living quarters. In her book, Masih describes the darkness of their journeys to the outhouse latrine at night that was no more than a hole in the ground. Those trips became a cornerstone of her education. First, because her brother, who seemed so bold and brave in the daytime, and whose freedoms she so envied, was afraid of the dark, and begged her to go with him, and that taught her something about strength and the semblance of strength; and also because her mother gave her some advice about how to deal with the dark. “She said to me, the darkness can only devour you if you let your fear in. So open your eyes as wide as you can, and face the darkness.” As Masih grew up, that domestic coping strategy became her mantra.“I realised that the whole human rights situation in Iran is like my childhood backyard: it’s dark, and women should open their eyes as wide as they can, because that’s the way to make the darkness disappear.”
Masih was two years old when the event took place that would change the course of not only her life, but that of all her countryfolk: the 1979 revolution, under which the Shah was deposed and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to lead Iran as an Islamic republic. From that moment on, says Masih, everything was different. “Looking at photographs of my family before the revolution, you see my mum wearing a skirt and a scarf, and my father has just a small beard. But after Khomeini returned it was forbidden to shave so his beard grew huge and my mother had to be entirely covered up in a dark chador. Everyone looked miserable after the revolution: fresh and happy faces like my mother’s face before were covered up, and sad.”
The irony, though, was that Masih’s parents were dedicated supporters of the revolution. “They were poor, they wanted better jobs, they wanted greater opportunities for equality, and they thought the revolution would bring these changes. But before the revolution there was social freedom, women were allowed to participate as equals in much of life – they could do sport, they could go to the gym, there were female judges. The people who backed the revolution wanted political freedom, and they ended up not getting that – plus, they lost their social freedom.”
And so Masih, the daughter of a family of revolutionaries, became a revolutionary against their revolution, and a disgrace to them and all they stood for. From the age of seven, the law said she had to wear a hijab and from soon after that age, she was protesting against wearing it. The revolution, she says, was a revolution against women. “The first thing that happened was the introduction of the compulsory hijab and everything else came after that, because it was the most visible and essential way of controlling the women. The revolution took our bodies hostage, and it is taking them hostage still.”
At school she got involved in an underground protest movement; soon after becoming engaged, aged 18, to another activist, both were arrested. “That was the scariest thing that has ever happened to me,” she says. Because, although the wedding formalities were not yet complete, she was already pregnant. Thrown into jail, in horrifying conditions, she was at her lowest ebb. “I thought my life was over. I was so young and I was being threatened, held in solitary confinement, not allowed to see a lawyer. I didn’t know whether I’d ever get out, whether I’d ever see my family again.”
Eventually, Masih was sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes. Her sentence was suspended for three years, in a move the judge thought would snuff out this teenage mother’s wayward subversion. He couldn’t have been more wrong. When her son Pouyan was still young, Masih’s husband Reza decided to divorce her. “In Iran, a man can choose to divorce his wife but a woman has to ask her husband’s permission for a divorce,” she says. Worse, Reza was awarded custody of Pouyan, then four. For most of the next decade, she would see her son only occasionally. But injustice heaped on injustice served only to strengthen Masih’s resolve. “After the divorce,” she says, “I blossomed. I was the first woman in our village to get divorced.” Her father, deeply ashamed, called her to say he couldn’t show his face in the mosque and she should return home and he would find her a new man to marry; but Masih refused.
She found a job in market research, before retraining as a journalist and spending several years as a parliamentary reporter. She was suspended for wearing red shoes, and eventually had her pass rescinded. A few years later, feeling she was in too much danger of another arrest in Iran, she moved to the UK and, aged 33, studied at Oxford Brookes University. She continued her battle from the UK, interviewing Iranian leaders by phone and challenging them over the compulsory hijab, writing and broadcasting about women’s rights. But it was what happened one day in 2014, when she was living near Kew Gardens in London, that set the touchpaper of her campaign properly alight.
It was a spring morning, in a country where no woman thinks twice about her right to have her hair uncovered, but for Masih, it still felt like precious freedom. In a street filled with cherry blossom she ran joyfully along, for no other reason than to enjoy the luxury of the wind in her hair. The moment was captured by her partner, Kambiz, and Masih later posted it on her Facebook page with a message about how in her own country, this simple act would be illegal. The photograph attracted immediate attention; and more than that, spurred others to join her. And many of the women who posted photographs of themselves with the wind in their hair were inside Iran, waving their headscarves boldly above their heads, risking detention and punishment to protest about their right to choose whether or not to wear the hijab. Within days the Facebook page had more than 100,000 likes, and a campaign was born: My Stealthy Freedom, which invites women to share photographs of themselves without the hijab. Those who do – some with their backs to the camera, but many smiling and laughing boldly straight into the lens – are, says Masih, not activists: they’re ordinary women, speaking from their hearts about a choice they know they ought to have.
For Masih, that’s what it’s all about – choice. Her mother and other women in her family in Iran, she says, have always chosen the veil and probably always will. That’s fine, but so too should be her choice not to wear it. Her dream, she says, would be to walk down a street in Iran next to her mother – she would be in her hijab, Masih would have the wind in her hair, and there would be freedom. The reality, though, is that Masih hasn’t seen either of her parents for nine years. Telling me this, she breaks down, burying her face in her hands. Her father is now 75 and her mother 65; her dread is that she won’t be able to return to Iran in time to see them again. “I dream about returning to the village and surprising them,” she says through her tears. “It’s hard to even imagine that in the 21st century you can be in this situation, cut off from your family in a world that’s so connected.”
The connectivity, though, hasn’t reached her parents. “They have no internet, they’re not on social media,” she says. “Their daughter is the only Iranian journalist with more than two million followers on Facebook and Twitter, but they’re unable to follow me.” She talks to her mum, she says, every other week by phone. “My mum always said I was a troublemaker, a nightmare. I was expelled from school, I brought them all kinds of difficulty, but I know she is proud of me now. And my father, I think what’s difficult for him is that he realises that in all that I do, I’m his daughter. He never gives up – and nor do I.”
Today, Masih lives in Brooklyn, from where she is speaking to me on Skype. She’s married to Kambiz, and Pouyan, now 21, is living in London and working towards a career in the film industry. And while she’s unable to return to Iran because of her high-profile campaigning for women, she’s now also unable to leave the US because of Trump’s visa ban – and Pouyan is unable to visit her for the same reason. Her isolation from both her parents and her son is a huge, heavy price to pay; and it seems particularly cruel that she hasn’t seen Pouyan for more than a year, having been separated from him for so much of his childhood.
The world’s focus is on Iran’s nuclear deal, but Masih says some obvious points are being overlooked. “Everyone is thinking of Iran as a threat, but they’re not thinking about the threat Iran is to its own women. Iran’s leaders say the biggest enemy and the greatest Satan is America. But they sit down to negotiate with the biggest Satan, and they don’t sit down to negotiate with women. I think for Iran the biggest enemy is us, the women.” To people who tell her that the hijab is just a bit of cloth, and there are much bigger problems to be faced in the Middle East, Masih has this message: “This is about a government that’s controlling a whole society through women. It makes me so sad when people say it’s a small thing, because everything starts from that infringement of our rights.” A whole culture of intolerance, she says, is built on that; and women bear its brunt, from the age of seven.
We’re like the suffragettes, we’re risking breaking the law for something we absolutely know is right
Many people, says Masih, ask her about her goal; she always tells them this story. “When I was a girl we would go walking in the mountains. Some people would start to say, ‘When will we arrive?’, but I always thought, ‘The journey is what matters.’ We’re learning things along the way, we’re getting healthy. And that’s how it is with this: it’s a process, it’s about education. We’re building up democracy and we’re building up support for a cause that says simply that in the 21st century, women and men are equal, and you cannot suppress half the population.”
Her ambition, of course, is to return to Iran, and she says that in her heart she believes she will. “But for now, though I am not inside Iran, I am there every day via social media. When I was a child my mum would say: ‘If you get thrown out of the room, you always find a window to get back in.’ And now social media is my window. The authorities are watching me, and my campaign, because they know how powerful it is that ordinary women are protesting. We’re like the suffragettes, we’re risking breaking the law for something we absolutely know is right.”
The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad with Kambiz Foroohar is published by Virago at £14.99