Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist and advocate for religious freedom and women's rights. She is the moderator of My Stealthy Freedom, a Facebook group that has more than 800,000 followers. There, she and other Iranian women post photos of themselves removing their headscarves in public — a quiet but brave protest against the Iranian laws that govern not just their clothing, but the way they practice their religion. This video is her story.
Iranian law requires women and girls over the age of 7 to wear a headscarf called a hijab, which covers their hair, ears, and neck, whenever they are out in public. Going out uncovered — or even wearing a headscarf that is too loose — can lead to punishment. According to the Iranian government, 3.6 million women were warned, fined, or arrested in 2014 for "crimes against public prudency and morality," which are most often dress code violations.
The headscarf law was passed in 1983, a few years after the Islamic Revolution. For the conservative clerics who lead Iran, requiring women to wear the hijab is part of enforcing compliance with Islamic law. And for many Iranian women, wearing the hijab is an important religious practice, as well as a way to dress modestly and appropriately. But many Iranian women have no such belief. To them, the law's requirement that they wear the hijab anyway feels unjust and oppressive.
Alinejad was one of them. She felt frustrated by the hijab requirement from the time she was first forced to wear it at the age of 7. Alinejad was raised in a religiously conservative family, and her female relatives all believed women should wear the hijab. But despite that upbringing, Alinejad always questioned why women like her, who didn't believe in the hijab, should still be required to wear it.
Last year, while living in London, Alinejad started the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom after a photo of her posing in Iran without a hijab in public provoked a rush of responses from friends who sent photos of themselves doing the same thing. After she started the page, thousands of photos flooded in from women around Iran posing uncovered in public. My Stealthy Freedom became a destination for women who wanted vent their frustrations at the regime's restrictions. By mid-2014, the page had more than 450,000 followers. Today it has more than 800,000.
After the page went viral, the Iranian government tried to discredit Alinejad. The state broadcasting service fabricated a report that claimed she had taken drugs in London, stripped off her clothes, and then been raped in front of her teenage son.
Alinejad has decided that returning to Iran would be too dangerous given the government's response to her Facebook page. This has caused a painful separation from her family members who still live there. She now lives in Brooklyn but dreams every day of returning to her country.
There are some small glimmers of hope. Support for the headscarf law isn't universal, even among conservative male clerics. Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, a conservative Iranian cleric and former editor of the popular Hamshahri newspaper, is an ardent supporter of the hijab but recently called the compulsory policy a failure. "If the hijab were free, there would have been more respect for its sanctity," he said last month at a religious seminar in Qom, the religious center of Iran.
Women like Alinejad still have a long road ahead before they will see substantive change. But in the meantime, her Facebook project has raised awareness of the issue and provided a space for women like her to express their hope for a freer, more tolerant Iran.