Iranian journalist-activist and author of the book The Wind in my Hair Masih Alinejad, living in exile in New York, tells Medha Dutta that women’s problems are not limited to compulsory hijab; yet, compulsory hijab is the most visible sign of women’s submission and loss of agency.
What inspired you to write this book? Was it an easy decision?
I’ve written four books in my native tongue, Persian, but writing in English was a challenge. It certainly wasn’t an easy decision. I wanted to chronicle my life because the turn that my life has taken has been reflective of lives of millions of other Iranians. I wanted to tell a different story of Iran—of ordinary farmers and street vendors like my mother who can’t read or write but taught me to never shy away from danger and face my fears.
The 1979 revolution changed the picture of your country. On hindsight, was the revolution too hasty?
Many people wanted reform of the monarchy rather than an Islamic Revolution. They wanted democracy. However, what they got in return has made millions of Iranians regretful. Women have been most badly affected. It was hasty in the sense that it was blunder to hand the country over to a man like Ayatollah Khomeini.
From refusing to wear the hijab to the meteoric rise as a journalist, was becoming an activist a foregone conclusion?
Not at all. Like all teenagers, I was a rebel. But I didn’t want to be an activist. As a journalist, I realised that it was easy for the authorities to manipulate the press, so I decided to seek my own news, which led me to cover sections of society that had received little coverage. My goal was to give them a voice and gradually I found myself as a campaigning journalist/activist.
You have been jailed and persecuted. Did you ever want to give up?
To be honest, I’ve had many days when I thought about giving up but giving up is really not an option. The Islamic Republic wants to demoralise you, so that you give up your fight.
Separated from your parents and your son, is this too big a price to pay in fighting for women’s rights?
Unfortunately, this was a price I had to pay. Since I come from a religious family, the estrangement that I have faced has been far greater. I am a mother and I miss my son very much. I’m also a daughter and miss my own mother—I’ve not seen or held her for almost 10 years.
You started the Facebook page ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, while in exile. Did you think it would become a movement?
I had never expected the campaign to become so popular. It made me realise how much Iranian women needed their voice to be heard. They needed a platform.
Is there pressure to abandon your activism?
Yes, the pressure is immense. Since I have launched this campaign, I have been the subject of a smear campaign by the regime in Iran while also receiving a death threat.
What is the day you dream of?
I dream of going home. Going to see my parents at our home in Ghomikola, in northern Iran. I dream of a day when dancing will not be forbidden, and women will be able to sing in my country. A day when my mother (who wears the hijab) and me (who doesn’t) will be able to walk the streets in Iran without facing harassment and glaring looks.
What is the fondest memory you have of your country?
The family gatherings at my parents’, when I was a young girl, with all the aunts and uncles and nephews and nieces and cousins all sitting on the floor around a giant sofreh piled with steaming plates of rice and stews.
Have movements like #MeToo helped?
It made us realise that sexual harassment and abuse is universal and is a problem in America and other Western nations too, and just as importantly, how to fight back by naming and shaming. I started a campaign called #MyCameraIsMyWeapon where women post films of men who are harassing them.
You are an inspiration for scores of women worldwide, but who is your inspiration?
The women of Iran who are challenging the patriarchal and misogynist laws are my inspiration. Those who bravely take off their headscarves in front of police stations and government offices inspire me to carry on. The struggle will continue.