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"At the heart of my activism is the need to give voice to millions of silenced women”
Writer and journalist Masih Alinejad writes about her campaign against the compulsory hijab. Masih will be joining us here to answer questions on Wednesday 27 June, 9pm
Posted on: Thu 21-Jun-18 17:16:20
(85 comments )
My name is Masih Alinejad. I’m a journalist, human rights activist, and a women's rights warrior. I’m also a troublemaker, all because I started to say the word ‘no’.
Saying ‘no’ is not easy for women, and especially in the place where I grew up. Born in a small village in Northern Iran called Ghomikola, I had a simple childhood with two conservative parents, surrounded by brothers who enjoyed more freedom and greater privilege.
My inquisitiveness about why life as a girl had to be different started at a young age. Like children everywhere, growing up was riddled with small acts of defiance - with one small difference. Without knowing it, I was challenging the notions of what it meant to be a girl in the Islamic Republic. This brought shame to my family time and again - when I was expelled from high school for asking questions about the political system, for instance, and when I complained about the compulsory hijab.
Another source of embarrassment (which probably contributed to my expulsion) came when I was chosen by my high school to become a Quran reciter. As I mention in my book, this opportunity imbued my parents with pride. That day, I sat cross-legged on a futon on the stage, looking out at the students and teachers, and started reading a verse from the Quran. But I was a voracious reader of poetry, and my mind instinctively wanted to venture into reading a forbidden poem. It was written by Shamloo - one of Iran’s censored poets. So, I started reciting: “They smell your mouth, lest you've said I love you; they smell your heart. These are strange times my dear.” To my utter surprise, the students were whistling in delight. But delving into the ‘forbidden’ displeased the teachers, who hurried forwards and dragged me away. I continued to recite the poem even while they pulled me from my platform - a public manifestation of my early rebellion.
This photo prompted numerous women in Iran to reach out - sending me messages about how envious they were of my freedom, and expressing the sorrow they felt in being unable to share it.
I believe that it is only by saying ‘no’ that we forge our identity.
The will to fight against injustice has guided me ever since. For more than four years now, I have campaigned against the compulsory hijab - a venture which started spontaneously on a beautiful May day, when the rain stopped and the sun came out. I lived in Kew Gardens at the time, and decided to run around amongst the cherry blossoms. I posted a picture of this on Facebook, not wearing a headscarf. In the picture, I was running through a street in London - enthralled by the sensation of the wind stroking my hair.
I hadn’t lived in Iran for a long time - forced to leave five years earlier. In 2009, there was a sweeping crackdown by the Islamic Republic authorities, and the country was gripped by large-scale protests against the electoral fraud. I settled down in the UK as a journalist, relaying the voices of families whose sons and daughters had been killed by the security forces with impunity.
After five years of covering political news, I longed for change. And, to my astonishment, this Kew Gardens photo prompted numerous women in Iran to reach out - sending me messages about how envious they were of my freedom, and expressing the sorrow they felt in being unable to share it.
Little did I know that, shortly afterwards, my Facebook feed and inbox would be inundated with photos sent from Iran by Iranian women; women who were stealthily enjoying the wind in their hair. And so a campaign named #MyStealthyFreedom was born. It was so successful that it soon morphed into related initiatives.
In May 2017, we launched #WhiteWednesdays (whereby every Wednesday, women in Iran go into public without a headscarf, or wear a white shawl to protest against compulsory hijab). Soon enough, women started walking the streets of Iran bare-headed, and sent me the videos of their rebellion.
Another groundbreaking moment took place in December, with the rise of the #GirlsOfRevolutionStr
Now, #WhiteWednesdays has grown so huge that women are walking unveiled in the streets of Iran on a daily basis. Our latest initiative, #MyCameraIsMyWeapon, has also garnered a huge following in Iran - as evidenced by the popularity of our Instagram videos. The campaign asks women to film the people who harass them in the street for being unveiled, which seems to have frightened the morality police officers.
At the heart of my activism is the need to give voice to the millions of silenced women in Iran - women who are continually ignored by the government. I attribute the success of my campaigns to the fact that they are utterly based on the actions of ordinary people. My role has been to give them a platform from which to relay their voices - so that they, too, can speak their forbidden words.
Masih Alinejad is the author of The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Virago, £10.49 hardback). She joins us here on the bottom of this guest post for a webchat on Wednesday 27 June at 9pm. Post your questions here in advance if you can’t make it on the day.
By Masih Alinejad
Amen amen amen! Saying no is an act of sheer raw power.
What advice do you have for women in the West, fortunate enough to enjoy many freedoms, who take that freedom for granted? How do women hold on to the freedom they have in a world where it can disappear so easily?
I heard you speak on radio 5 and you were brilliant, thank you for everything that you're doing.
so how can non-Muslim British women best support you?
This is brilliant. Thank you for your courage and spirit and thanks to MNHQ for featuring.
Thank you for showing how powerful women's resistance can be, truly inspirational
Inspiring... you're very brave. Freedom tastes so sweet doesn't it?
Floral's question is excellent. I've always found the pictures of Iranian women laughing and unveiled just before the Revolution such a stark reminder of how fragile women's rights are.
I believe that it is only by saying ‘no’ that we forge our identity.
My role has been to give them a platform from which to relay their voices - so that they, too, can speak their forbidden words.
I think these words will resonate with a lot of women on MN right now. Thank you for your post.
Wonderful to read and I look forward to following this. Thank you for such inspiring words and deeds.
Fantastic work! You sound like the kind of person who will make a big difference.
You are an amazing woman!
Thank you for your courage. You have all of womankind behind you.
Brilliant to hear your story, your acts of courage must be helping so many women.
Iran seems like a beautiful country with so many educated people. Do you think there’s hope that women’s rights may improve under the current regime?
Your story is so inspiring. I wish there was more I could do to help women in other cultures oppressed by patriarchal societies. It breaks my heart to see women treated as though they are just slaves to please men.
Keep up the fantastic work.
Brilliant. I have an Iranian friend who is making a life away from Iran in order to have more freedoms. I am in awe of her bravery really, because her upbringing has made her fearful of so much bit she's still doing it.
I know her heart sinks on her rare trips back home because she doesn't want to wear a scarf.
I've been following MyStealthyFreedom on facebook for years and it's fantastic to witness this movement.
At the start it was mostly women alone on the beach or in a park, with their back to the camera, baring their hair for just a moment, just a few seconds of rebellion.
Then over time there was more and more, in more public places. Leaving the scarves off for longer and looking more confident. They started turning their faces to the camera, taking their sunglasses off too. Then they stated going out in public in groups, then alone.
Now they are walking in public and yelling back at men who tell them off, physically pushing the morality police away and refusing to go along.
It's like at the start they were scared and timid, now they're still scared but they're angry and determined too.
It's just been fascinating to watch the change over time as every woman who speaks up and says "I will not" gives other women permission to do the same, more and more, louder and louder.
It's also been interested to watch the role of men. Yes, there are men shouting at them and harassing them for being indecent, and on the other hand there are a few men who are wearing the hijab themselves to protest. But more powerfully I've seen a few different videos of women protesting the hijab and getting harassed by the police being surrounded by a crowd of mostly men chanting at the police "leave her alone" or telling the woman to run and they will not let the police follow her.
It's a really important example of how social movements work and everyone should follow them.
Thanks for being the snowflake that started the avalanche Masih <3
Looks good. Have set a reminder.
My question would be what can a white British feminist do to support you?
This is fascinating and important. Thank you.
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