Early last year Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad posted a picture online which showed her staring into a camera, the breeze visibly ruffling her hair. The public photo provoked an instant reaction and an avalanche of messages from women in her home country. The reason: she wasn't wearing a hijab.
Since May, the Facebook page "My Stealthy Freedom" has gained more than 770,000 "likes" — of which more than 514,000 are from users based in Iran. Countless women have sent in personal stories accompanied by photos or videos of them shaking their hair in the wind. Some turn from the camera, but others face it straight on. Passport-style photos of young women wearing hijab paired with hijab-free offerings, the contrast startling.
"Being a woman in Iran means that there is always some kind of pressure inside you, at the age of seven you are banned from showing your hair. If you want to go to school you have to cover your hair, and when you want to sing, singing solo is forbidden for women as well," 38-year-old Alinejad told VICE News. "When I was in Iran I used to create a moment of freedom in any public place when I didn't see the police around, and I called it 'my stealthy freedom'," she added, explaining how the page got its moniker.
Alinejad received a human rights award at last week's Geneva Summit. The journalist told VICE News said that this supports her idea that her mission is larger than a piece of cloth. "It's not about a headscarf. It's about human dignity, it's about freedom of expression," Alinejad said. "Just think about it. At the age of seven you have to be someone else in Iran."
"This hair was like a hostage in the hands of the Iranian government for over 30 years."
Iran's strictly enforced Islamic law includes a long list of "moral crimes." Many of these specifically target women. The punishment for a female who appears in a public place without a hijab on is either a fine or a sentence of imprisonment lasting between 10 days and two months.
"They're scared of our hair; they're scared of our singing; they're scared of our voice," Alinejad opined, before saying that the hijab is a "red light" for the Iranian government. "The main image of the Islamic Republic is hijab. They want to show the world that they are the Islamic Republic."
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Alinejad left Iran in 2009. She lived in the UK up until six months ago, when she moved to New York. Now, she can't imagine ever returning home. "I would love to go back to my country and be the voice of those women who don't have any voice," she said, but added that she would be worried for her own safety. "But maybe I shouldn't say that, because I don't want to make them happy that I'm scared." Alinejad said that several Iranian websites had labeled her a prostitute and falsely claimed she was raped by three men in London.
"It's disgusting and it breaks my heart when they attack me in this way," Alinejad told VICE News. "When you want to criticize the government, when you want to say anything against them the first thing they attack is that you're feminine, they call you a whore."
"I think that they're scared of me, otherwise they wouldn't attack me," she added. "I'm just a 45kg woman."
She said that criticism of her quickly was extended to accusations that she has been working with foreign security services. "All the creativity that I have, they always think this is coming from the CIA or the Israeli government. But I am against all human abuse, whether it's happening in Israel, in America, in any country. They cannot understand that journalism is criticizing human abuses in a country. In America they can criticize their own government, but why can't we criticize our own government?"
Alinejad stressed that she was supportive of women wearing hijab if it was their choice. "I am not against hijab, I am against compulsion," she said.
However, she is constantly concerned about the girls and women who besiege her with photos and messages that they hope to make public. Alinejad told VICE News that she will always double-check for their consent, making sure submitters are aware that they may face a backlash. She said she realizes that it's not only the government, but "sometimes the family as well" that can put pressure on women.
"Human rights is not thinking about the majority. If there is one single woman that is suffering from rights abuse you have to be their voice. I know that there are a lot of women that believe in hijab, but compulsory hijab [still] affects those women who believe in hijab, and those men who are not forced to wear hijab. Because compulsory hijab can make a separation between families, and creates tension. There are a lot of women, just because of the way they dress they judge each other. Hijab affects men as well because it's an insult to men because it says men can not control themselves."
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Alinejad told VICE News she doesn't think that President Hassan Rouhani — perceived as a reformer upon his election in 2013 — has brought any tangible change. She also said she believes that the only way to effectively question the law in Iran is to operate from outside the country. "We don't have any opportunity to challenge our government in a fundamental way," she said.
"I really carry my home in my shoulders," she added. "They expelled me from Iran, but they couldn't take Iran from my heart. It's there. They closed down all the doors for me to get back to my country but I am using social media to jump in to my country. Social media for me is like a window, so I open the window and I go inside."
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