Masih Alinejad grew up in a lush, small village in the Mazandaran province of northern Iran. Its name is but a tiny dot on the Iranian map, but Ghomikola was the capital of her world and the place where the political journalist’s history of resistance began. The family house was a humble structure made of clay and mud mixed with straw, and had a backyard where her mother grew vegetables. They used the outhouse as their bathroom and Masih remembers feeling scared to walk to the structure in the pitch darkness of the night. This was when she called her mother’s words to mind: “Never ask people to help you because you can’t always get someone to take you to the bathroom. Stand up and stare into the darkness – the darkness will disappear. But if you let your fear win, then the darkness can devour you and it will swallow you whole.”

Masih Alinejad experienced a lot of darkness in her life. Expelled from high school and imprisoned as a teenager, expelled from Iranian parliament and targeted by the Iranian government as a political journalist and women’s rights activist, separated from her son and family and in exile till today, she chooses to use her mother’s words as a manifest. SheThePeople.TV converses with the Iranian journalist, activist and author about her memoir The Wind in My Hair: My Fight For Freedom in Modern Iran, and her journey to restore the rights of women in Iran.

Masih Alinejad
The Wind in My Hair, Image Credit: Hachette India

Childhood

The Iranian journalist was not just a child of the Iranian revolution of 1979, but also of the revolution that millions of traditional Iranian mothers started from their homes. Having never been formally exposed to the concepts of feminism and equality, they fought and learned from their pain, becoming powerful enough to oppose unfair restrictions and laws. And it was from the kitchen that Masih’s mother taught her daughter how to be brave when her father and brothers fought in the Islamic Revolution. Zarrin Khanom worked hard in the vegetable farm and was a tailor too who earned money for her work – the villagers called Masih ‘Zari Khayat Kija’ meaning the daughter of Zari the tailor.

It was from the kitchen that Masih’s mother taught her daughter how to be brave when her father and brothers fought in the Islamic Revolution.

Alinejad asserts, “People think that working in the kitchen – it’s for women. Taking care of the kids – it’s for women. Cooking – it’s for women. I didn’t like that because I knew that my mum was a powerful woman but she didn’t have the same rights as my father, and I knew that I too was as powerful as my brothers.” When the revolution took away the rights of women: the right of choosing what to wear, the right of singing, the right of dancing, the right of riding bicycles, the right of entering stadiums – Masih didn’t share the same religious beliefs as her mother and father and so, she used the power she received from Zarrin “to start a revolution against my (her) parents’ revolution.”

“I lost everything because of my fights, but the thing is, I became really powerful.” – Masih Alinejad

Experience of Restriction

Masih’s experience of restriction taught her two options: to follow her father’s lifestyle and be a victim and second-class citizen or to choose her own path and destination. “It’s not easy,” she relates, “It’s really painful to lose the moral support of your family. Because you love them, but you don’t love their lifestyle and their beliefs. I lost everything because of my fights, but the thing is, I became really powerful.”

Masih recalls being a teenager and watching her brother enjoy his freedom when he jumped in the village river, rode a bicycle, ran freely with the boys and played without being told that he should go home and get behind the curtain – he was free to do whatever he wanted to do. “But I was told, ‘Shhhhhh, this is not good for proper Muslim girls,’ and not just for Muslims girls but all girls, ‘It’s not good for a girl to laugh loudly or ride a bicycle’,” the author tells of her experience.

Masih Alinejad
Masih Alinejad Image Credit: Kambiz Faroohar

“Before Faryad-e-Kaveh, I was a lonely warrior, a lonely soldier.”

Masih’s tradition of rebellion carried forward into her teenage years too. She stopped wearing the chador at the age of 16 and started a shabnameh – a secret publication – called Faryad-e-Kaveh in high school with a small group of friends and her brother Ali. Their activities were nothing more than what a high school political club would engage in but in Iran, their thoughts and actions almost amounted to sedition. “Before Faryad-e-Kaveh, I was a lonely warrior, a lonely soldier. It was just me and Ali helping me at home. But after going to high school and getting involved in student activities, my life changed because I found other people – women and men who were unhappy about the restrictive laws and oppressors – who wanted to work towards the same goal. So, I started to create awareness.”

Masih Alinejad and the members of Faryad-e-Kaveh were arrested and imprisoned, and this action of the Iranian government altered their lives forever. The activist speaks of her experience, “That was the darkest time of my life. I was in a situation with people who claimed that Islam always treats people rightfully and respectfully, but I and people like me were being disrespected and humiliated just because we had different opinions and ideas. I never knew that we had a good cop and a bad cop in prison but even with the good cop..when you rely on him…at the end of the day, it’s scary that you’re in the middle of a game in which they’re trying to brainwash you and force you into a false confession.” Her story is just one example of millions of people who face imprisonment in the Islamic Republic of Iran for voicing and fighting for their opinion.

Becoming a Political Journalist

Alinejad’s record would continue to restrict her from completing her education and pose difficulties in securing a job. But she was never one to run away from the darkness and became a powerful political journalist who is both feared and respected in Iran – in spite of being expelled from the Iranian Majlis and repeatedly targeted by the Iranian government for unveiling corrupt practices and officials and criticising the regime, finally leading to her exile in 2009. “The Government of Iran, they have guns and bullets, they have prison and power, they have money, they have the state media. For four decades, the Iranian regime took the bodies and identities of their own people hostage. But we the people, who 20 years ago had only pamphlets and tape cassettes, now have social media and are uniting to get our bodies, identities and lifestyle back from these oppressors and dictators,” she asserts.

For four decades, the Iranian regime took the bodies and identities of their own people hostage. But we the people, who 20 years ago had only pamphlets and tape cassettes, now have social media and are uniting to get our bodies, identities and lifestyle back from these oppressors and dictators.

“Religion cannot make decisions for our lifestyle”

Masih Alinejad maintains that, in the 21st century, Iranian people are looking for a regime that makes religion separate from the state. “Religion cannot make decisions for our lifestyle,” states the Iranian journalist. “I love my sister, I love my mother and I’m not against them. But the government of Iran actually brainwashes people like my mom and my sister to be against me, and people who support the Islamic Republic of Iran think that they have to force other people to follow the Islamic lifestyle,” she says.

From the age of seven, Iranian girls and women have had to observe the compulsory hijab law, even if they are not Muslim. Non-abidance means that they cannot get an education, a job or be seen in public without risking 74 lashes, arrest and jail. Iranian women can’t live in their own country if they don’t wear the hijab. So, when Masih Alinejad published a video of an Iranian woman walking unveiled in public for White Wednesdays – a campaign she started to encourage Iranian people to wear white on Wednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab law – she was really scared. She asked the woman, “Are you sure you want to publish this video?”. The woman, Shima, responded to the journalist saying, “Look at the suffrages, look at history and the women who sacrificed their lives in order to have the right to vote. Freedom is not free.” Shima was arrested and Masih felt immense guilt. But the day Shima stood in front of the court, she took her headscarf off and said, “By arresting me, by threatening me, you cannot keep me silent, and I say no to compulsory hijab even louder.”

“By arresting me, by threatening me, you cannot keep me silent, and I say no to compulsory hijab even louder.” -Shima

On being released from prison after two months, Shima wrote about her interrogation which took place over “hours and hours”. Her interrogator told her, “You’re working for Masih Alinejad and this is your crime because Masih is supported by the west,” to which Shima replied, “I’m not working for Masih. This is Masih working for me. Because I don’t have any platform inside Iran.” Iranian women are standing up to the government, knowing that it’s risky and that they could be attacked with acid and jailed as well. Masih’s online campaigns – My Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays – find great support from both women and men in Iran. Iranian women are standing up for their right to choose – because wearing the hijab in public should be a personal choice.

Masih Alinejad
Masih Alinejad at the Kew Gardens

On Compulsory Hijab Law

Masih Alinejad asks female politicians, athletes and those in power visiting Iran to not “go to my (her) country and ignore Iranian women’s struggles.” She finds it to be heartbreaking when women, especially those in power, lend legitimacy to the compulsory hijab law by abiding by it while visiting Iran – particularly when Iranian women are sacrificing their lives and going to jail to challenge the discriminatory law. “If you keep silent, then you empower the government of Iran to put more pressure on Iranian women,” she strongly points out.

“Every individual woman, if they want to challenge their oppressive government and the morality police, first of all, they’ve to start their own revolution from their own kitchens.”

Masih believes that every individual woman has to understand the power of saying no within their own community, their own house and finding their own agency. “Every individual woman, if they want to challenge their oppressive government and the morality police, first of all, they’ve to start their own revolution from their own kitchens,” she urges. Alinejad has a message for the women in India too: “You can feel my pain because we all share the same pain. I always think that my book is not just about the women in Iran – it’s about all women who understand what it means to be a second-class citizen. We learn a lot from Indian women and I’m sure that we the women in Iran have a lot to teach you as well, so we have to learn from each other. The world can be a better place if women all around the world unite.”

Feature Image Credit: Sam, Hachette India.

The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, by Masih Alinejad, has been published by Hachette India. It is priced at Rs. 699, and is available online and in bookstores.

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