The Iranian activist «Masih Alinejad» narrates to «Wlaha Wogoh Okhra» about the Feminist Struggle against Compulsory Hijab in the Islamic Republic
Interview by: Raneem AlAfifi
Translated by: Laila Stino
Violence against women in Iran is not limited to a culture of society, and its problem is not confined to a gap between laws and enforcement mechanisms, but it extends to be a state-sponsored phenomenon.
In the last four years, the Iranian women have fought fierce battles, in search of their rights, specifically their right to choose what to wear and how to appear. The first campaign in this regard, was launched in 2014, by the Iranian activist and journalist «Masih Alinejad», in protest against the compulsory hijab, which is imposed by the Iranian authorities, since the Islamic revolution succeeded in 1979 and so far. The Campaign started under the name «Stealthy Freedom», through which, «Masih» was encouraging women to send their pictures without Hijab, and she indeed received thousands of photos.
In 2017, «Masih» started «White Wednesday» campaign and asked women to dress in white, every Wednesday, as a protest against the obligatory hijab. The Campaign went down to the streets, and many women took off their Hijab and hung it on sticks. This was a huge step against the Iranian law and forces.
Wlaha Wogoh Okhra| She Has Other Faces, succeeded in reaching out the Iranian feminist activist «Masih Alinejad», and had a long interview with her about Iran, the issue of compulsory hijab, and the Iranian feminism in general.
To Read the interview in Arabic – Click here
«Masih» was a political journalist in Iran until 2009. After the 2009 Iranian presidential elections, she focused on human rights violations, but by 2014, she was tired of all politics and wanted to do something different. According to her, she always felt and knew through interactions with other Iranian women, that compulsory hijab was not something popular in Iran. Even women who wore hijab, they disliked the compulsory aspect. So, when she posted her photo, she expected a reaction but honestly, nothing like what happened and has continued for four years.
The photo that was posted by «Masih» for herself without hijab in May 2014, on Facebook, was considered the first step of the struggle against compulsory Hijab. However, she disagrees reassuring that «Stealthy Freedom» was built upon other old campaigns.
«Masih» clarified that the struggle dates back to 1979, when women demonstrated at streets to confirm their refusal against compulsory hijab. On this day, women were subjected to many forms of violence from bullies who threatened them with knives and sticks. Although Islamists claimed that Hijab would be optional matter after the Islamic revolution, it all turned to be fake and nothing was applied.
The word «compulsory» was repeated many times within her talk about the reasons that stand behind launching her campaigns, but does she refuse the issue of enforcing hijab by law or hijab in general?
«My mother is wearing headscarf, my sister and my cousins, and all women of my family» she says. «As I have often said in my interviews in the Western media and in my public speeches, I dream to walk alongside my mother in London, New York and Tehran where both of us choose freely how to cover ourselves. I’m NOT against hijab but against compulsion.»
«Masih» believes that women can choose what they wear and that a piece of cloth cannot bring dignity and honor.
«Living in Iran under compulsory hijab is like living a lie – all women pretend to like the hijab and wear it, while in fact in the private moments, many of them take off their headscarves. » She added.
«Masih» tells us that in Iran, women have to be veiled in order to get education and job; otherwise, they will be bullied. Even when she was covering the parliament as a journalist, she was forced to wear hijab in a very conservative way, and had to be more rigorous than many women in the streets of Tehran, as if a strand of hair escaped the covering, she would be berated by the male members of Parliament.
«Masih» grew up in Iran and lived there for a long time, during which she wore the hijab like all women living there, until she moved to the United Kingdom, where she could finally take it off.
When she moved to the West, at first in Oxford, in the United Kingdom, she wore a headscarf briefly, and then a black hat which served as her version of hijab. Instead of a headscarf, she wore this hat in all her public appearances and TV interviews.
«Masih» lived in a state of internal conflict between her desire to please her parents by sticking to hijab, and her conviction to be free from coercion. «This duality was eating at my core because I didn’t feel that I was true to my real self, then in 2012, I stopped wearing the hat and only wore it when I was being interviewed on TV. »
«Masih» was able to get rid of this duality, and removed the veil completely, but this did not pass quietly, especially among her family, and this is what we asked about, «How was the reaction of her family toward her decision to stop wearing the headscarf or the hat? »
According to «Masih», her mother is more on her side. She accepts that she is a good person, someone of integrity and has her own code of conduct which is honourable even though she isn’t wearing the hijab. On the other side, her father is less tolerant. Her father is in the camp of the conservatives and wants her to revert back to full hijab. At the same time, the government agents pressured her parents to force them to make a bigger effort to get her to put the hijab on. Even to this day, her parents want her to put the hijab back.
«Masih» lived for thirty years covering her hair, in compliance with the rules, and the experience of taking off her hijab for the first time, had a psychological impact on her and her vision of many things around. In 2006, she visited Beirut and for the first time, she saw women in streets without a headscarf or hijab. These women were also Muslims, and this was a huge shock to her.
«I had seen women without headscarf or hijab only in Western or foreign movies, but in Beirut, they were everywhere and nobody arrested or molested them. Other men respected them rather than trying to bully them.»
«That morning, I walked out of the hotel with other Iranian woman and after walking a few blocks, we both removed our headscarves in unison. We were both nervous about being arrested and waited for the screech of morality police vans, but none came.» she added.
«Masih» accurately describes these moments «More than the feeling of the wind through my curly and unruly hair, much more than the physical sense, what I remember the most was the freedom from the piece of cloth around her hair and freedom from fear. All her life, I had lived in fear and at that moment I was freed from the fears.»
After four years of online activism through «Stealthy Freedom», the Iranian journalist and activist «Masih Alinejad» started the «White Wednesday» campaign in 2017, as a call for Iranian women to wear white every Wednesday, in protest against the mandatory veil.
«Masih» realized that she had to move the campaign to a different level as there was groundswell of support for her cause inside Iran and she wanted to increase the pressure on the regime. «That’s why women took our campaign to the streets with White Wednesdays and walking Unveiled. » she added. «Suddenly the campaign went from one conducted on social media to one in the streets and roads, and part of my thinking has always been to make sure that the campaigns receive both local and international media attention. The White Wednesday showed the world how brave Iranian women are and they are prepared to take our fight in the streets of Tehran and other cities.»
One of the latest campaigns that «Masih» started is «My Camera is My Weapon» where women use their mobile phones to record men who molest them and send such videos to her. Thanks to social media, these videos went viral. «Masih» pointed out that one of these videos was watched by millions, in which the morality police were beating up four women who revealed some hair under the headscarf. The outcry was so bad that three ministers in Iran condemned the morality police for the strong tactics.
The Police’s violence, however, continued, according to «Masih» and the police officers arrested the protesting women.
In February, the Iranian centre for strategic studies, a research arm of the president’s office, released a report, which reveals that 49.8% of Iranians believe the government should not mandate that a woman must wear a veil. «Masih» told us that this report is 4-5 years old, before she started Stealthy Freedom campaign. She stresses that if the government would dare to initiate another opinion poll, as much as 70% of Iranians would support a voluntary form of hijab.
«This shows how we have won the intellectual argument and the only thing holding us back is the brutal force of the regime, but the real victory can only be declared when compulsory hijab is consigned to the dustbin of history.» She said.
In the same context, «Masih» told us that the number of women who are warned and detained is much higher, something like more than 200,000 a year, and since she started publicizing the statistics, the government stopped publishing the relevant data, hoping to divert attention.
The irony is that the international community is paying more attention to women drivers in Saudi Arabia and child brides in Yemen than compulsory hijab. The reasons behind this, in «Masih’s» opinion, are multi-layered and complicated. «Many people in the West or I should say, non-Islamic countries either think all hijab is compulsory or that all Muslim wear the hijab and if you don’t, then you cannot be a Muslim. Part of this belief is the influence of extremist thinkers who have gained influence in late 1990s and 2000s. Another reason, is that in West, the Muslim minorities faced discrimination and many have gravitated towards a more conservative view of Islam. That is rather than embrace enlightenment, they have become more conservative in their views of Islam, and Western communities do not want any internal conflicts within their societies and the issue of hijab and whether it is compulsory or not is confusing and not worth the trouble for them. » she added. «Another reason, is that the launch of the stealthy freedom campaign coincided with the Iran nuclear talks and the subsequent deal that emerged, thus many Western countries wanted to finalize the deal and were happy to turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses in Iran.»
Saudi Arabia and Iran have always been considered as the most brutal and violent countries against their women by religious rules and laws, but Saudi Arabia is now taking steady steps toward liberation. What makes Iran far from this path?
In Saudi Arabia, the pressure for reform is coming from the ruling elite that want to move the country in a different direction, while in Iran, the pressure for reform is coming from people and it is resisted by the ruling elite. The Saudi elite have looked to the future and decided to change, but in Iran, the elite are not ready for change. «Masih» responded to our question.
In the context of talking about the authorities and its belief in liberation and empowerment, Iranian President Hassan Rowhani called for supporting the participation of Iranian women in public life, and there are already Iranian women who have reached senior positions and others who participate in the parliamentary elections, but this doesn’t have a clear impact on the Iranian women’s status. «Masih» points out that the Iranian president appointed a woman named «Shahindkholt Moulandi» as a deputy to be in charge of women’s affairs, but she repeatedly complained that her hands were tied, so she did not accomplish anything.
«The issue is beyond having control over what women wear. In the Islamic Republic, the law favors the men in marriage and divorce laws, in inheritance laws and in giving testimony. Women cannot be appointed judges or to positions of power. Furthermore, women in Iran cannot travel abroad without the permission of their husbands or their fathers if they are unmarried. There are no women ministers or officials who have real power.» she said.
«Masih» believes that if women cannot control what they wear or cannot travel without permission of their husbands, this will create an attitude that women can be treated like second-class citizens.
«Masih» is settled now in US, where the individual freedoms are guaranteed. At the end of the interview, we asked «Masih» why does not she live happily there, enjoy your life, and go away from this path, which brings problems, accusations, abuses, and perhaps may deprive her from returning back to Iran till the end of her life?
«My physical body is in the US, but my mind and spirit are in Iran. I wake up with Iran news and goes to bed with the latest news from Iran, and I’m always in touch with hundreds of people inside Iran daily.» she added «My wish is to be back to my home country, free to make my choices as I do here in US, where I have been outspoken in defense of women who want to wear the hijab.»