In 2014, five years after her exile from her home country Iran, journalist Masih Alinejad posted a picture of herself on Facebook running joyfully through the streets of London, the wind blowing freely through her thick, curly hair. The photo was not very different from hundreds of other pictures on social media, but there was one crucial element that struck a chord with women across Iran: there was no hijab on her head to hide her hair.

Within months, that picture inspired hundreds of Iranian women to share their own hijab-free photos online, and catapulted Alinejad to international fame as a champion of women’s rights and freedoms. It also made her a favourite target of hate-mongering for the ayatollahs of Iran, a country where women can be arrested for not wearing the hijab.

Alinejad is the founder of “My Stealthy Freedom”, a social media movement that uses photos, videos and hashtags to defy compulsory hijab and other fascist restrictions imposed on women by the Islamic Republic of Iran. With more than a million followers on Facebook, the movement has become one of the biggest platforms for Iranian women to document their daily rebellions – both stealthy and public – against hijab laws.

For the daughter of a village street peddler who grew up wearing a hijab even while sleeping at night, this has been a long journey of defiance, daring and speaking truth to power. Alinejad’s new book, The Wind in my Hair, is the story of this journey, and the 41-year-old is just as amazed at how far she has come as anyone reading the book would be.

“As a child I used to watch the news on our black-and-white TV in the village, and our clerics and policy makers were always talking about me as a woman, about my body, telling me how I should live my life,” said Alinejad, speaking to Scroll.in on Skype from her home in New York. “Now, the policy makers and clerics are watching me and my campaign on TV!”

The power of Alinejad’s book, however, is not just in the story of My Stealthy Freedom. More fascinating is her extraordinary journey as a journalist whose words were enough to threaten the highest order of the Iranian regime and force her into indefinite exile.

A fearless journalist

Alinejad describes herself as the “proud daughter of Ghomikola”, a village in the fertile northern plains of Iran, bordering the Caspian Sea. Her parents were poor, hardworking and devout supporters of the country’s Islamic regime, and Alinejad’s rebellions began at a young age. As a child, she spoke out against rules that forbade girls to run and play outdoors with boys; in high school she refused to drape herself in the compulsory black chador; as an 18-year-old college student she was arrested for publishing political pamphlets criticising the government. She faced weeks of harsh police interrogation and narrowly escaped a five-year prison sentence.

Photo: Kew Garden
Photo: Kew Garden

By the time she was in her early 20s, Alinejad was married, divorced and – thanks to Iran’s patriarchal laws – had lost custody of her young son. She found herself alone in Tehran with two options before her: return to her village and wait for a new husband, or somehow build an independent life in the city. Alinejad decided to walk into the office of a liberal Persian newspaper and demanded a job as a journalist.

“The editor asked me if I spoke English, and I said no. I had no university degree, no knowledge of computers, but I said I was good at writing,” said Alinejad. The editor turned her away, but she showed up again the next day. “I told him I didn’t need anything, just a chair and some training, and I would learn how to be a journalist. I think that is my character – I kept pushing the boundaries.”

The gamble paid off. In barely seven years, Alinejad rose from her traineeship to become one of Iran’s sharpest political reporters and a critic of the government’s clampdown on free press. She asked the clerics, the president and parliamentarians questions that few other journalists – let alone a woman reporter – would dare to ask, and frequently became the news herself.

In 2003, Alinejad famously asked President Mohammad Khatami why he had failed to congratulate Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The cornered president responded by dismissing Ebadi’s achievement as unimportant and Alinejad acquired a reputation as the woman who had dared to embarrass the president on the international stage.

“As a woman journalist, if you ask any questions they don’t like, they attack you not because of your opinions, but because of your sexuality,” said Alinejad. “I have been named a prostitute, a whore; I have been accused of having sexual relations with members of parliament. They say these things every time you are successful, critical or brave.”

In 2005, Alinejad exposed large-scale corruption among Iranian parliamentarians who were pocketing thousands of dollars as secret “bonuses” over and above their salaries at a time when they were supposed to be taking pay cuts. Her reports created a storm in the regime and Alinejad was barred from entry into the parliament. Four years later, with her safety constantly at risk, she sought exile in England.

Over the past nine years, Alinejad has learned English, won back custody of her son, moved to New York and is excelling as an international freelance journalist. But the Iranian government has barred her parents and siblings from leaving the country, so she has no idea if she will ever get to see her family again.

Never the right time

All through her career as a political journalist, Alinejad has maintained that fighting compulsory hijab is perhaps the most important political battle that the people of Iran need to win. She describes compulsory hijab as the most visible symbol of the Islamic Republic’s misogyny and its dictatorship over women’s personal lives. The phrase “first cover your hair”, she says, is a warning every Iranian woman has faced for trying to question, critique or voice her opinion on any matter.

“Growing up, whenever I wanted to talk about women’s rights and compulsory hijab, I was always told that this is not the time. Because when you are poor, you never have the time to talk about personal rights,” said Alinejad. “It was the same when we had the Revolution and the war with Iraq – people would say there are bigger things to worry about than the hijab.”

In The Wind in my Hair, Alinejad describes an incident in 2004 when a cleric accosted her in the corridors of the Iranian parliament while she was going about her daily reporting. Two strands of hair were sticking out of Alinejad’s head covering, and the cleric threatened to punch her if she didn’t cover them up immediately. As Alinejad called him out for his overreaction, he tried to lunge at her with clenched fists. He was restrained by other journalists and parliamentarians, but a few days later, Alinejad was served a warning not to display too much hair while reporting in parliament.

A decade later, by the time Alinejad had left Iran and started My Stealthy Freedom, Iranian women had grown bolder and more defiant than ever before. Women had intermittently protested compulsory hijab ever since the law was introduced in 1979, but My Stealthy Freedom equipped them with the power of social media, which the regime could not easily suppress. “Before, there were millions of women unhappy with compulsory hijab who would take it off anytime they did not see the police around,” said Alinejad. “But My Stealthy Freedom was the first time that ordinary women started getting together and filming themselves without the hijab, as an act of resistance.”

Perhaps the most iconic image of this resistance is of 31-year-old Vida Movahed, a protester who stood on a utility box in a public square in Tehran in 2017, took off her headscarf and held it up on a stick in defiance of the law. Movahed was arrested, detained and later released. Since then, the Iranian regime has arrested more than 30 women for defying laws that govern women’s lives. The most recent arrest was of Maedeh Hojabri, an 18-year-old social media star popular for videos of herself dancing alone in her bedroom. After her arrest, Iranian authorities released a video showing Hojabri making a teary-eyed apology.

“It reminded me of the time when I was made to give a false confession after my arrest,” said Alinejad, who has started a campaign called #Dancetillwedance on My Stealthy Freedom, to demand the release of Hojabri. In solidarity with Hojabri, hundreds of Iranian men and women are now uploading videos of themselves dancing with abandon.

“This generation has become fearless,” said Alinejad. “They have become powerful, out of control, more rebellious, brave. That is why I don’t give up when I get threats – because I get my energy from the women in Iran.”

Turning family against family

One of the earliest indirect threats Alinejad received after launching My Stealthy Freedom was in 2014, when the Iranian state media put out a report claiming she had been “raped by three bandits” on the streets of London “after shedding her clothes under the effect of hallucinatory drugs”.

State-backed personal attacks on her character continued over the next few years, and last month, the Iranian government attempted to turn her family against her. “The government held a pro-hijab rally and they went to my father, asking him to be a special guest at the event,” said Alinejad. When both her parents refused the offer, government authorities roped in her older sister, who has always been religious, to make a statement against Alinejad’s campaign.

“My sister was on TV telling the Supreme Leader of Iran, ‘forgive us, we are so ashamed’,” said Alinejad, who has always stressed that her campaign is not against hjiabs in general but about the freedom of choice: women should be able to choose whether they want to wear the hijab or not. “It is really sad, because I am not against my sister’s hijab. This regime is using family against family.”

But Alinejad is carrying on, with the hope that her new book will inspire not just the people of Iran but women all over the world.

“In Iran, the main question is how to get rid of the Islamic Republic. This is the 21st century and people don’t want clerics running the country,” she said. “But my book is not just about the struggle of women inside Iran – it is a journey for all women who want to stand up for their rights.”