Masih Alinejad is recognized by millions of global admirers for inspiring protests against the Iranian regime’s enforced mandatory hijab. She believes that the compulsory wearing of the traditional women’s Islamic head covering is a visual symbol of submission to Sharia law, and more specifically of female submission to overbearing male authority. And through her videos and interviews, she has developed an enormous social media following for her Facebook page “MyStealthyFreedom” and her Twitter hashtag #WhiteWednesdays.
Masih is an Iranian-American journalist-in-exile who now lives in New York where she continues to oppose the religious dictatorship in her home country. Her resistance to Tehran’s authoritarian religious regime led to her expulsion from Iran in 2009. She has since become an international social media maven, providing communication platforms for Iranian women to celebrate their headscarf-free hair in photos and videos, along with encouraging other expressions of personal freedom.
Masih Alinejad was born on September 11, 1976 in Ghomikola, a small and poor northern Iranian village. Just about three years later the Shah of Iran was overthrown. For the first time in more than two thousand years, there was no Persian king on the peacock throne.
Instead, a Shiite cleric, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini—better known as Ayatollah Khomeini—became Iran’s “Supreme Leader” and seized the reins of the Iranian government. He and his followers began to enforce his strict interpretation of Shiite theology, launching the Iranian Revolution in early 1979 and imposing harshly enforced Sharia law on the country’s entire population.
In her best-selling book The Wind in My Hair, Masih wrote, “I am a child of that Islamic Revolution and have lived nearly all my life under its shadow. My story is that of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties. The revolution changed much, but for women it was many steps backward. In the Islamic Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability.”
Today, during angry, widespread protests across Iran, the power of Masih Alinejad’s social media networks has resonated across the world. She has posted countless videos of passionate and courageous demonstrators marching and chanting in dozens of Iranian cities. They protest against the powerful clerics who rule the country with iron fists, and videos capturing their defiance have flooded Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for days. Thanks to those videos, the youthful energy of Iranian resistance to the religious regime was available online 24-7, until the panicked regime cut off virtually all internet access to the entire country for five days, after which the government claimed it would be “gradually restored.”
I recently met with Masih Alinejad in New York to interview her for Current Trends in Islamist Ideology about her exceptional struggles on behalf of freedom for Iranian women. We discussed her efforts to expose the injustices the Islamic Republic’s religious authorities have imposed on the Iranian people, and particularly on its female population.
As we began, she told me about her early years and how promises of economic improvement and intensifying religious demands affected her childhood.
ALINEJAD: I grew up in a traditional family which later became a very religious family. My parents and relatives were excited by the revolution, and their reason was only poverty. My grandfathers, both of them, were very, very poor. My parents didn't have proper jobs and were also poor. So their goal and dream was to have a fair opportunity to earn enough money to survive. And because of all the propaganda from Khomeini's people, they believed the promise of the revolution, which contradicted the “establishment” —the Shah's regime. Everyone was told that the revolutionaries wanted to create a government for the poor peasants.
LG: Something like the Soviet Union in those days?
ALINEJAD: It was exactly the mentality of Soviet Union. And that was my father, who was most excited that finally we, the poor people, were going to be recognized. We were going to be the ones with dignity. He listened to Khomeini’s cassettes, excited by what the new Supreme Leader was promising. And my father said, “The things we are hearing are beyond our expectations!” Khomeini was announcing, “You don't need to pay for electricity. You don't need to pay for water. You don't need to pay for buses and transportation….”
LG: So was it really religious at all?
ALINEJAD: Not at the beginning—at least as our village understood it. For my parents, the reason to support the revolution was not a religious reason. They were just poor and looking for a better opportunity to survive, and they believed that the money from the country’s oil was going to be on their own table. That's all. But after the revolution, the whole goal changed. And they became extremely religious.
LG: Yes, tell me about wearing the hijab even as a child
ALINEJAD: My mother, who used to wear small headscarves, which were very beautiful—this happy woman became the unsmiling one wearing a dark chador. She also became the police in the house. She was supportive of my father who constantly said, “You’d better wear a hijab.”
LG: So he was more fanatical?
ALINEJAD: Oh, yeah. My mother was really supportive of us, but she didn't have any power. And she was brainwashed as well. From the beginning, she was thinking that all this was good for us. When she changed her appearance, she thought this was good for us as well. So my sister, my mother and I, we used to wear hijab inside the house. And it wasn’t only us. A lot of my relatives and people in the village—for instance, we had 200 families in the village and about half of the people in our village were doing the same—wearing hijab inside the house. But our household was very extreme, and we even had to wear it in front of our father, and even when we went to bed.
LG: Traditionally, you wouldn’t have to do that in your own home. Only with people outside the family. Is that right?
ALINEJAD: Yes, traditionally only with people outside the family, or in the village. Or when somebody comes to your house, you’d go and put on a hijab. But it became far more extreme after the revolution. When I compare two family pictures, from before and after the revolution, it just breaks my heart. I’d look at my parents and think, “You were not like this. You didn't look like this before. But then you became a propaganda tool for the government saying that you are the people who want to change society.” A lot of times the government becomes successful by using people against people, and that means morality police, and not just the official police...
LG: Turning ordinary people against one another?
ALINEJAD: Yeah, people against people They advise you that in the Islamic way if you’re a women you have to cover. And legally, they have the power to do that in an Islamic country. People are allowed to stop other people and tell them what to wear.
LG: Even strangers?
ALINEJAD: Strangers. In the streets.
The older she got, the more Masih became aware of the lack of freedom girls and women faced in her village, and the less she respected the severe religious control she was subjected to. “As a girl,” she told me, “I never had a clue about discrimination, feminist movements or equality or equal rights. Instead as I got older, through the educational system I was always brainwashed that my female body was a sin. And if I got raped or harassed by men, that was my fault because I didn’t cover myself properly. I was the reason that men couldn’t control themselves and harassed me sexually. That’s what the educational system in Iran taught us: the female body is evil and has to be completely hidden.
LG: So hijab became the symbol of hiding the evil female body. What did you think about this when you were young?
ALINEJAD: Hijab became part of my body, even beyond my personal identity. When you wear it from the age of seven, when you go to bed, it's like you're—you know, you think your hair is part of your body, yeah? But when you cover it, you don't feel your hair anymore. Instead the headscarf is going to be part of your body. You take it everywhere with you. And taking it off— it's like chopping up your body. It's like cutting your body. It's that difficult for people who wear it every day in their life. So it was my identity. It was my body. It was everything. It was the bond between me and my family.
I never had a clue about ideals like freedom of choice or equality. But what I was witnessing was my brother. Ali was only two years older than me. And he was the most visible example of all the freedom that I was banned from enjoying. I envied his freedom without having any clue about why—but yeah, why? Why was Ali free to go and jump in the beautiful river? Ali was enjoying bicycle riding. He loved to jump in the river, to sing, to go out with boys and play around. But we girls, no. We were not allowed to do these things.
LG: At what age did all this begin?
ALINEJAD: From the age of seven when you go to school. And when you go to school, there’s segregation. And you see the total discrimination. You don't have a clue about what discrimination is but you feel it. Like, I couldn't see any difference between my hair and his hair. But I had to cover it.
LG: What did your mother say about all this?
ALINEJAD: My mother, actually, as I told you, was a brave woman. She was brainwashed, but she had courage. For example, if I was scared of the dark, my mother told me how to defeat the darkness. She said, “If you’re scared of the darkness, then the darkness can devour you.” We had no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing—so we used an outhouse. And the outhouse was in the very darkest part of the backyard garden. I was scared. So my mother said, “Instead of being scared of the darkness, stare into the darkness.”
She told me. “If you’re scared of the darkness, then the darkness can swallow you up. But if you open your eyes as wide as you can, the shadows, monsters, the darkness will disappear!” I’ve experienced a lot of darkness in my life. But I found out for myself as a 7- or 8-year old that I could take my brother into backyard garden to the outhouse during the night. So I said to him, “Look you’re scared of the darkness. I can lead you to the outhouse. But during the day, it's you. You have to take me out with you. You have to teach me how to ride a bicycle. You have to take me to the river.” And that is how I gained my rights back—by using my brother. And so my brother became an ally for me from early childhood.
LG: This is Ali.
ALINEJAD: Yes, Ali.
On the evening of September 24, 2019, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported “Ali Alinejad was arrested and taken away in a blindfold and handcuffs, according to his sister. Against a backdrop of an ongoing campaign aimed at silencing foreign-based activists, agents of Iran’s Intelligence Ministry arrested the brother of prominent U.S.-based activist Masih Alinejad, she announced on Twitter.”
On November 18, Masih wrote to me, “My brother has been held in solitary for 52 days now. The main line of questioning involves his relationship with me. His crime is simply being my brother. His health has suffered, naturally, and his 11-year-old daughter has been badly affected, not eating and missing school. Ali is kept in the notorious Evin prison, in a special wing overseen by Revolutionary Guards.
“Hadi Lotfi and Leila Lotfi, siblings of my ex-husband were arrested on the same day as my brother was, on Sept. 24. Hadi was released after 1 day detention and questioning and Leila after almost 3 weeks. She was grilled about her relationship with me, which is very tangential.
“Their aim was not to find incriminating evidence, which they didn't as none exists, but to intimidate me into silence. I have a bigger family, the Iranian people, and for their sake, I'm not going to allow anyone to blackmail me into silence for the sake of my immediate family.”
ALINEJAD: So Ali became one of the most important allies for me, and that is why we were always together, reading books together. You know, on the map, we have only one Iran. But in reality, after the revolution, we have two Irans—one that you see in official media—clerics, Parliament, government, establishment, schools, a country where all the women wear black hijabs.
But for us, there is another Iran – one that is underground, hidden. Singing was forbidden for women, however women still sing today, but do it away from prying eyes. Dancing was forbidden, but we girls danced in private. Mixed party was banned—but we had mixed parties underground. And some books were banned, history, politics, even fiction—these books were available under the counter and we read them all. So we had an underground life, me and my brother—reading books, singing, learning about history and going to mixed parties. And, you know, everything that we were banned from doing, we were doing underground.
LG: So how old were you by that time?
ALINEJAD: By now I was a teenager. Then we decided—let's do something more. Let's create awareness about politics! So my brother and I started to read books on politics and history and then discuss it with other people and tell them that, hey, we have to spread the word about this. We summarized the books and spread our ideas in a newsletter we had created with our group. We secretly distributed the newsletter at night. That same night some of our group wrote slogans on walls in our town.
LG: What was the slogan?
ALINEJAD: It was very extreme. “Religion is poisonous to logic.”
LG: That’s pretty intense in Iran!
ALINEJAD: Yes! And so instead of accepting all the clerics’ propaganda, we read about religion ourselves and we wrote slogans, to challenge the religious dictatorship. We were very young, but we were critical and always we challenged our parents, teachers at school, the principal, all of them. We asked, “Why are we not free to challenge religious teachings?” “It's against God!” we were told. “It's against religion!” As a young girl, I was often told that if you don't cover your hair, you're going to be hanged by your hair in Hell. So we turned against religion. We didn't want to be hanged by our hair...
LG: So everything came back to religion and not the economy?
ALINEJAD: Yeah, because everything is about religion. And we became very critical of that religious dictatorship, the religious government. And in our book club, we started to read forbidden books, which we kept underground. And then, after publishing two issues of our newsletter, our group —all of us were arrested—me, my brother, my boyfriend Reza and his sister Leila and others.
LG: How old were you when they arrested you?
LG: Was that a wake-up call for you as to what kind of forces you were really dealing with?
ALINEJAD: That was the first time that I experienced a different level of darkness—I had come against the power of the state. My brother, my fiancé and all our group were rounded up and interrogated. I was so young and naïve.
LG: Wasn’t Reza’s sister Leila in jail too?
ALINEJAD: Yes. Leila received a suspended sentence because she was only 17 years old at the time. When it came to me, I was also given a three-year suspended sentence because I was … pregnant. When I found out, I didn’t know which was worse, being in jail or being pregnant. I hadn’t formally been married and so it was a scandal.
LG: So until then, you didn't know you were pregnant?
ALINEJAD: No. Because I was young and I had just gotten engaged. But, you know, once I found out that I was pregnant, the moment I was released from prison I went with Leila to get an abortion. I knew it’d be a scandal and I’d get into more trouble with my parents. It’s funny, because my son, Pouyan, was the reason I was freed.. My parents were very scared and...
LG: Were they ashamed of you?
ALINEJAD: ...Yes. They were.
After being released from her incarceration, Masih was no longer able to continue her education. She and Reza got married, and their son Pouyan was born. Reza was teaching part time, and for a while, Masih managed to earn some money taking photographs of local weddings. Her work became popular enough to finance a video camera and her success increased. Then she, Reza and Pouyan moved to Tehran and life became more complicated than ever. Divorce ensued; and in accordance with Sharia law, Pouyan was awarded the custody of Reza. This was a heartbreaking experience in which Masih found herself very much alone.
“I had always wanted to be a writer,” she wrote in her book, “but I ever thought I was any good at it…and my teenage writing had gotten me into jail….”
In Tehran, she decided she wanted to be a journalist.. She wanted to ask her questions to the powerful men who should be able to answer them. She applied for an internship at a reformist publication, Hambastegi. The interview didn’t begin well, but the tide turned in her favor when she offered her prepared speech.
“There are more qualified candidates. There are those who have the right family connections, and some can speak a foreign language or two. But I am a true product of the Islamic Revolution. My family are the mostazfain—the down-trodden—the ones who made this revolution and are the bedrock of support for the Islamic Republic. My father and brothers fought in the war. We don’t have connections because we are too busy working to feed our families This revolution was about giving opportunity to people like me, the have-nots, not the insiders.”
She got the job.
LG: Tell me about your journalism career—how you managed to succeed and how you remained in it, literally to the bitter end, which is at least part of the reason you're here in New York today.
ALINEJAD: Journalism was a journey for me and, yes, it was the reason I ended up getting kicked of my country.
I discovered that if I wanted to expose the truth or corruption or the underlying violence, I would have to cross the regime’s red lines and be the voice of ordinary people. So in the Iranian Parliament, you are not allowed to criticize the supreme leader of Iran, and that was a red line. In fact, there are lots of redlines. For example, when I interviewed former presidents [Hashemi] Rafsanjani, [Mohammad] Khatami, and [Ali] Larijani, who is now the Speaker of Parliament—all of them—I was not allowed to ask questions about hijab. It was a red line. We were also not allowed to ask about nuclear activities or press freedom or the role of Islamic government.
Very early on as a journalist, I decided that I didn’t want to follow the crowd. So rather than chase the tidbits of news that were officially handed out to us, I decided to find my own news. One way was to challenge members of the Parliament. Of course that way, I got plenty of scoops but several times I got myself into trouble, which I mention in my book. But the most important time was when I exposed corruption in the Iranian Parliament. Very simply, it was an issue of paychecks. The hardline members always claimed that their salaries were the same as an average teacher or a nurse. I suspected they were getting paid much more. So, I confronted some of the members of the Parliament.
I found one lawmaker from a faraway town and told him: “Look—if you show me your pay slip, I’ll just write about how much you received without mentioning your name. But if you don't, then in my story I’ll have to mention that you declined to show your pay details which means you have something to hide. It’ll be bad for you back home.” After much grumbling he agreed as long as I kept his name out of the newspaper.
LG: You agreed to write about them, but to keep them anonymous.
ALINEJAD: Yes, anonymous. I reached out to many members and eventually got three pay slips in one month. And I published that, and it really exposed the hypocrisy and corruption. There were all sorts of secret payments and bonuses every month that the lawmakers hadn’t declared. A day or two afterwards, a group of teachers who were striking for more pay, came to demonstrate outside the Parliament building and they all placards carrying my story. It became a scandal. So, officials decided to kick me out of the Parliamentary lobby. I was denied access to the Parliament as a journalist. I mean, if my exposé had happened here in America or in the UK, I’d have won investigative journalism awards. But instead my award was being kicked out from the Iranian Parliament.
Also, as a woman journalist you are often accused of flirting with your sources or attacked for the way you look. The atmosphere in the Parliament was toxic for women. One time, when I challenged an MP about his political views, I got personally attacked, and he almost punched me in my face.
LG: He almost physically attacked you?
ALINEJAD: Yes. I had just asked a critical question about his position on a political issue. He didn’t like my question. So he said, “First cover your hair, and then ask your question.” That expression, “First cover your hair…” is very familiar for a lot of women in Iran.
I said, “wait a minute, there's nothing out!” meaning all of my hair was under the mandatory headscarf.
He said, “I'm going to punch you on your face if you don't cover it!”
I touched all over my headscarf and discovered two errant pieces of hair had slipped out.
“All this for two strands of hair?” I asked angrily. “You should be ashamed of yourself for wanting to punch me!”
He was taken aback by my tone.
“Shut up, shut up!” He shouted and he was swinging his fists at me. He had to be restrained by other lawmakers and journalists.
LG: That sums up women’s rights in Iran and what the hijab really represents. How do you explain that kind of an outburst?
ALINEJAD: It actually shows you how the compulsory hijab is very important for these men. It's a tool that they can easily use to oppress any woman. They can easily deny your existence. And for me, it was very heartbreaking to be humiliated by a cleric instead of answering my question or even criticizing me because of my question. He was using hijab issue to oppress me, to silence me and to attack me.
LG: You said at one point that you felt like a hostage.
ALINEJAD: Yeah, that’s right. You're like a hostage. As a woman you have so few rights. Anything you say doesn't matter to them; what you wear matters to them. They’ve held women hostage for 40 years, writing their own ideologies on our bodies and saying to the rest of the world that this is the Islamic Republic. When you go to Iran, the only way that you can see that it’s an Islamic country is through the women, because we are wearing the most visible symbol of Islam.
LG: And the guys are in T-shirts and jeans.
ALINEJAD: Exactly. This is the whole propaganda that they've been using in the rest of the world, saying that this is an Islamic country and our women choose the hijab, which is a big lie.
I strongly believe that the main fight in Iran is over lifestyle, over how we want to live. People talk a lot about the possible war between the U.S. and Iran, over the nuclear issues. But we Iranians already are facing a daily war, one that is between the people and a government that wants to impose its religious ideology by force on the population. The religious dictatorship wants the youth to follow that lifestyle. But the youth want to choose for themselves. The government has guns and bullets, courts and prison. They control all the media. But the people, they have the social media. Their only weapon is social media—Twitter, Facebook, which are banned, and Instagram.
LG: Don’t they know how to get into social media even if it’s banned?
ALINEJAD: Yes, the youth in Iran, they're very smart. They know how to bypass the restrictions; they use VPNs to bypass filters. They don’t know how to get into the traditional media, so they use social media. And risk their lives doing it.
LG: Considering what you learned as a journalist, do you think Iran’s Reformist politicians came closer to offering those fundamental rights that the conservatives deny?
ALINEJAD: At the core, they are the same. Reformist and conservative, President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad or President Khatami. When it comes to the Islamic Republic and supporting the regime— especially when it comes to women's rights or human rights—they're all the same. But unfortunately, the regime tactic is successful because they get people to participate in fake elections. Only approved candidates are allowed to run.
When I lived in Iran, I thought reform was the way forward. I thought the regime could be reformed. I thought Ahmadinejad was extreme. And he always said crazy things like how there was a connection, between him and the saints. He claimed he had a halo of light around him.
LG: The light? You mean what he said at the United Nations? That he was surrounded by light and everyone’s eyes were on him?
ALINEJAD: Exactly. But his views are similar to those of President [Hassan] Rouhani and [Foreign Minister] Javad Zarif. All share the same Shiite religious beliefs, from the martyrdom of Iman Hossein, the third Imam to the disappearance of Mehdi, the 12th Imam. The reformist are just more careful in how they present themselves to Western media.
Or take Qassem Soleimani, [head of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp.’s Quds Force] he is very savvy in how he uses social media to project a particular image. But at the same time, when at an Iranian television interview, he projects a different image, more pious, telling stories with a religious message.
LG: For example…
ALINEJAD: He recounted a story of how during the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, a Hezbollah solider had a dream of Fatimah al-Zahra, the daughter of prophet Mohammad, who said “Everything is going to be all right.” And when he woke up, he heard that the troops had shot down an Israeli helicopter and Israeli tanks had come under attack. Soleimani told this story and he believed in the miracle that the soldier had witnessed. He has the right credentials and my fear is that, for next election, he is going to be one of the Presidential candidates.
So there really is no difference between Javad Zarif and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, apart from the fact that Ahmadinejad cannot speak English. Zarif is charming and he lies effectively in English. The Western media cannot believe that he’s a liar because he has charm.
LG: So you’re saying Zarif is charming, and Ahmadinejad has no charm?
ALINEJAD: Ahmadinejad has rough manners, he looks out of his depth but he has his fans in Iran. But Western media totally love Zarif, because he knows how he can charm them with a joke. However right now, thanks to social media, Iran’s young generation can criticize and expose Zarif’s lies.
LG: So they're pushing back in Iran.
ALINEJAD: People are pushing back. I think people are getting successful as well.
LG: I want you to tell me about 2009 and the election that led to the Green Movement and also set free some of the ideas about freedom that are still out there today. But for you, it ended up exiling you so you can no longer live in your own country.
ALINEJAD: That was actually the time that I realized it's good to be out of Iran. Because I had a name, but I couldn't use it when I was in Iran. In 2009 they killed more than a hundred people.
Before the election, the whole regime was very open to reformists, to the youth, to allowing women to wear loose hijab in the street—more freedom. This happens every election—the rules are relaxed and then after the votes are cast, the rigid laws are reenacted.
The 2009 election was going to be historic, we felt. Two reformist candidates were going to challenge Ahmadinejad. We thought change was possible. We thought reform was possible.
LG: And you were covering all this.
ALINEJAD: I had gone to London to take a short course in English and when I returned, my passport was confiscated by the security agents. They wanted me to leave Iran but I told them I had no such plans. I was in Iran and I was covering the news. I was with the reformist camp and because of my critical articles over the years against Ahmadinejad, I was rather well known.
Then, one day, I discovered that my car had been vandalized with my press card jammed under the front tire. I made an official complaint, and I also asked my newspaper, Etemmad Meli to support me. Mehdi Karroubi, one of the presidential challengers, was also the owner of the newspaper. He told me: “Even I cannot protect myself now. Because this is a sensitive situation: nobody can predict what's going to happen to us after the election.”
So Karroubi not only warned me but he had also warned the other presidential challenger during a TV debate. He had said to Mir-Hossein Mousavi, “Are you ready for the main fight after the election?” He said that because he knew that something was going to happen. And that's why he warned me, “I cannot protect you.”
Karroubi urged me to leave Iran. I was also warned by the security services that it was better if I left the country or else face the consequences. The security services didn’t want me to help the reformists. So with just days left to the voting, I decided to leave Iran for a few weeks and then return after the election, which I was sure was going to be won by one of the reformists. My passport was returned to me and I was ushered out of the country. And I wasn’t the only one. Many journalists had been warned to leave Iran. It was an attempt to kick out the troublemakers. The press were watched all the time.
The highly contested 2009 Iranian presidential election was a watershed for Masih Alinejad. She told me, “I exposed the story of 57 people who got killed. I made individual documentaries by interviewing the parents of 57 protestors who lost their lives, who got shot in the head or got tortured to death in notorious Kahrizak detention center. And so I learned a lot. When you got to Karroubi and Mousavi—the two leaders of the Green Movement, they were still saying “We want the Islamic Republic. We just want reform.” But while I was interviewing the parents of those young women and men who were killed, they said, “This is f* up. This regime is killing our people, our innocent children in the street. We don't want this regime anymore.”
After making those documentaries, Masih became more convinced than ever that until Iran’s women were able to choose what to wear and whether to cover their hair, there would no real freedom for anyone. The hijab, and the mandatory covering of women’s bodies, was a religious declaration of female inferiority to males. And until that barrier was torn off and discarded, any other kind of equality was impossible. This was the inspiration for Masih’s MyStealthyFreedom Facebook page and for the White Wednesdays movement.
BBC reported, “Using the hashtag #whitewednesdays, citizens have been posting pictures and videos of themselves wearing white headscarves or pieces of white clothing as symbols of protest. The idea is the brainchild of Masih Alinejad, founder of My Stealthy Freedom, an online movement opposing to the mandatory dress code. Before the 1979 Islamic revolution many Iranian women wore Western-style outfits, including miniskirts and short-sleeved tops, but this all changed when the late Ayatollah Khomeini came to power….”
Since 2009, social media has become Masih Alinejad’s massive sphere of influence. During the November 2019 uprising in Iran, videos made on smart phones have been broadcast—within minutes—across the world. The slogan “My camera is my weapon” has been adopted by youthful demonstrators. And the power of the mullahs continues to be dramatically challenged by young women armed only with iPhones. Their empowerment springs from their hope for a better future, and from their solidarity in sharing that hope with thousands of other women all around the world.
ALINEJAD: In 2009 social media hadn’t yet taken off. I was forced to live in London. And I watched how the election was rigged and Ahmadinejad was declared the winner. They shut down the newspaper that I worked for. The regime did everything to oppress people, to silence the whole Green Movement. They killed people. They denied the killings, but I was receiving a lot of information from people inside Iran. The parents of those people who got killed—do you know about Neda Agha Soltan?
LG: Yes, sadly I know about her very well. Video of her shooting and death was replayed innumerable times.
ALINEJAD: She became the symbol. And I broke her family’s story. And her mother and her father still, after 10 years, they sent me a video the 10th anniversary. Her mother said, “This is the first time that I watched the film of my daughter being killed.”
I was listening to these families and they were telling me how their children got tortured to death in prison. I thought to myself, how exactly do they want to reform this system? So I moved on, and I became the voice of those people actually asking for regime change. These people don’t want to participate in another election.
That changed my life forever, interviewing the families of those people who got killed.
LG: What happened to those interviews? Were they made public?
ALINEJAD: I made a two-hour television documentary, from inside Iran. A mother, Shahnaz Akmali, had lost her son, Mostafa during the protests. She agreed to help me, not just by filming inside Iran, because I can’t be there, but also Shahnaz contacted other mothers who had lost loved ones. She went town to town, door to door, introducing herself. “I'm Shahnaz, mother of Mostafa.”
This is how it is in the documentary. After she knocks and introduces herself, she meets other mothers and yes, they’d hug each other. And we learn about how death came for a daughter, a son, or a husband. Shahnaz found many families and filmed them and sent the videos to me. It was a story about the forgotten names, the families who had never received the attention they deserved.
Later, after the documentary was shown, she was arrested and received a one-year prison sentence. She now has to serve her sentence. But she's a proud and determined. mother of Mostafa. She sent me videos of a lot of other mothers, and now she's going to prison. And she said, “I'm proud because I made that documentary. I became the voice of those voiceless people.”
I said, “I feel guilty. I want to go back to Iran.”
She said, “If you come back to Iran, you'll betray me because you are there to be my voice.”
LG: So how were you able to help her from London?
ALINEJAD: If you make every individual person to act like an organization, to be a movement, then the dictators cannot go and arrest every individual person. That is what I learned from my journey, from journalism, from working at a reformist newspaper, from official media. Then from campaigning through social media and giving voice to voiceless people.
So for me right now, this is the goal—to make every individual person to be their own storyteller, to be their own newspaper, to be their own media. Shahnaz is one media. Saba Kord Afshari, a 20-year-old girl who joined White Wednesdays movement, now she’s received 24-year prison sentence. She is her own media now. Nobody can keep her silent. Everybody hears her. And her mother Raheleh told me, “Now that my daughter’s in prison I'm going to be her voice.” And I said, “They can arrest you.” She said, “Yes, then another mother and daughter are going to be my voice.”
That's the goal of journalism. To break the censorship, to win the battle, you have to make every single person, every individual person, to be their own media.
LG: So you’re empowering ordinary women to speak out and to overcome their fears.
ALINEJAD: Yes. They feel very empowered. A girl named Yasaman is 23-years old. She joined our White Wednesdays movement. And she got arrested. Her mother came out with a white headscarf and said, “I'm the voice of my daughter. Come and arrest me.” They arrested her. Both of them, mother and daughter, are in prison right now, sentenced to 16 years in prison.
From prison, they both sent out a letter saying that, “Now we are the voice of unknown prisoners here. We’re sending this letter to defend their rights. These are the people that the government of Iran wants to silence. It's not possible.”
For a dictatorship, it's easy to shut down a newspaper. But by using social media, you empower millions of people to be their own voices and the government loses the battle. Right now, they’ve already lost the battle. That is why they took my family members hostage—because they lost the battle. They censored the official journalists and media inside Iran, but the news of the girl waving her headscarf is everywhere on CNN.
Women who join the #WhiteWednesdays movement can have the same audience share as President Rouhani on CNN by using their mobile phones.
I’ve created a hashtag called, #mycameraismyweapon, which is our version of the #MeToo movement. With a mobile phone, women can film harassment by the morality police and send the videos to me for publication. Instead of being victims, they can become warriors.
The power of ordinary people is that they can reach thousands of others. They can change the tune of the media. They can challenge the propaganda. And I believe that they can bring freedom to Iran.