By Artika Raj for Youth Ki Awaaz:
As Masih Alinejad turned the corner to walk up and receive the Geneva Summit Women Rights award, a man, an Iranian, whom she didn’t know, stopped and asked her, “Are you the Iranian who is going to talk against Iran?”
In May last year, Masih Alinejad, an Iranian writer and journalist, started a Facebook page called ‘My Stealthy Freedom’. Why ‘stealthy’? Because it invited the women in Iran to share their ‘moment of guilty pleasure’ with everyone. And what was this guilty pleasure? The chance to let their hair loose from the binds of the compulsory hijab and capture that moment – of freedom enjoyed in stealth. Alinejad wasn’t asking the women to go out and do this, but born out of an impulsive desire to know if others in her country, like her, had ever dared to defy the law in private, she only invited them to share if they had. Uncertain of the response, she was stunned when pictures numbering in thousands started pouring in in the course of the next few weeks. For someone who left Iran in 2009 for the UK because of the lack of freedom to speak out against the government, these pictures of women from all over Iran, their heads uncovered, suggested that in Iran there is a voice that refuses to be silenced. Of women against compulsory hijab. Not the hijab, but the oppressive law that has made it mandatory for little girls, young women and old ladies to keep their hair and neck covered at all times for 35 years now, since 1979.
In just October last year, reports poured in of women being targeted for wearing what was deemed ‘inappropriate’ by ISIS-like extremists in the tourist city of Isfahan, in Iran. Thousands gathered to protest against this violence, even as one of the acid attack victims, 27-year-old Soheila Jorkesh, described the horror of it, “I was coming back from the swimming pool and pulled over in Bozorgmehr Street so that my friend could get out. That’s when it all happened… I took off all my clothes and threw them on the ground. People gathered in a circle but no one helped to wash my body, everyone was throwing back clothes on me so that my body would not be naked.”
Women in Iran, with its oppressive government and the morality laws of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have little say in the choices they make. It’s a sad truth of this 21st century world. But Alinejad’s Fb page with its 7,76,921 Likes (on my last count yesterday) is representative of another kind of truth too. The truth about women in Iran who are unafraid to speak up and against this oppression. As Masih tells me, “Just today (day of this interview), I interviewed a cleric, who is a Member of Parliament, and he said to me that if women in Iran don’t believe in the hijab, they have to leave. This is what makes my job so important because I’m used to hearing that a lot… He says that all the women who live in Iran, believe in the hijab. It’s a big lie. My Stealthy Freedom is against not just compulsory hijab, but against the denial of our existence, against the lie that people like him have been telling the world over the past 35 years. Women there are not against the hijab but want the freedom to choose what they want to wear.”
Armed then, with a degree from Oxford Brookes university that is, on how to use social media as a tool for change, the intervention that Masih makes with her Fb page is founded on a simple idea, “Social media as an alternative media can help people in countries like Iran, who do not have the freedom of expression, to become their own media. So by creating ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ I let the Iranian women who have no official voice inside Iran to be their own storytellers, their own media. Also, through social media we have shown the other face of Iran which you’ve never seen on Iranian state TV – of women who do not believe in the hijab.”
Growing up as she did in a traditional family in a small town north of Iran, where her mother and all her sisters wore the hijab, Masih’s decision to not wear one anymore wasn’t an easy one to make, “When I left Iran, the significance of wearing the hijab was just a way to connect with my family. That was all. Now, I believe that a lot of women who wear the hijab have the same problem as me. They don’t believe in the hijab as a religious matter, but they wear it because they see themselves as connected to the society in which they grow up.”
A scathing slander campaign has followed Masih ever since she decided to do this. There have been false reports of her getting raped by three men in London in Iranian media. “Indian women will understand me, that how heart-breaking it is for a woman to see her own government say that ‘if you are raped, it’s your own fault’. They’ve tried to use that to discredit me. It’s a complete lie.” Calling her, the ‘Admin of the Fb page, a prostitute’ is how the Iranian state which controls its media covertly has responded to her movement. Because a movement it is. Unafraid about the possible backlash of uploading pictures of their uncovered heads, their faces joyous in celebrating this rebellion, these women have some protection now by the sheer magnanimity of their numbers, and popularity the page has garnered from all over the world. That sadly wasn’t the case for 6 people who were arrested last year in May in Iran, for making a video, dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Happy’!
Almost 3.6 million women were warned just in the last year, Masih tells me, for not adhering to the compulsory hijab (punishment for which can range anywhere between imprisonment to lashing), while 3000 of them were sent to court. In this moral policing that goes on, there are women too who force and pressurise other women to follow the hijab, intolerant of the other’s choice. Respect, is what Masih and the thousands of women on her page want. Respect for their choices, as they respect the choice of women who choose to wear the hijab of their own accord, “Many women send us pictures wearing hijab, who say we believe in hijab but we hate compulsory hijab – so we need more such women to join us.”
And it’s not just the women that this archaic law disrespects, “I strongly believe that compulsory hijab is an insult to men as well. When you say that according to Islamic rules when you don’t wear a hijab as an Islamic woman, your hair can excite men and men cannot control themselves if they see your hair -this is an insult to these men. And I keep hearing from these men through the Fb page – the last post is from a young man who says ‘This is me and my mother’, and he wanted to show his solidarity. Lot of men believe compulsory hijab to be an insult to men, and a way to pressurise women – these are educated men who don’t think that women should stop singing or showing their hair because of them!”
But opposition from Iranian men has come from another quarter. Against the petition (to which Masih is a signatory) to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), asking it to boycott the Iranian team and make the Iranian government allow the women of Iran to watch sports, just like the men. But the men believe it’s against “national interest”. Acclaimed Iranian director, Jafar Panahi’s 2006 film ‘Offside’ was perhaps the best telling of this situation for me. The film is the story of a motley bunch of 6 women, who, dressed as men, try and sneak in to watch Iran play Bahrain in a World Cup qualifying match, but get caught.
The Iranian government believes that somehow having women in stadiums will encourage violence and abuse. And then, last year, it was the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British-Iranian, who was put behind bars for trying to watch a volleyball match in Iran. FIFA itself had first banned women from playing the sport wearing a hijab, but later revoked this in early 2014 in the face of convincing evidence that it targeted a certain section of the population unfairly and that the safety argument did not hold much water. In fact, FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, in the March 2015 issue has joined these women in raising his voice against this injustice, “When I travelled to Iran in November 2013, I was not only confronted with huge popular enthusiasm for football but also with a law forbidding women from attending football matches. I raised the topic at my meeting with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani, and came away with the impression that this intolerable situation could change over the medium term. However, nothing has happened. A collective “stadium ban” still applies to women in Iran, despite the existence of a thriving women’s football organisation. This cannot continue. Hence my appeal to the Iranian authorities: open the nation’s football stadiums to women!”
For Masih, I am certain, this is but a small victory, “We’ve been shouting, and screaming and crying for equality for a long time. No one paid any attention to our voices. This is the first time that we’ve come together and signed a letter to FIFA … we have been boycotted for 35 years and this is the only way to even get the men’s attention to understand how it feels when you are banned from supporting your own national team in your own country.”
Masih, her voice strongest when it articulates her hope, tells me of her dream for her country, “My dream is that one day Iranian women will have real freedom, not freedom in stealth or secret or underground. That we will have the same rights as our brothers inside Iran. Saying no to compulsory hijab is the first step towards true equality in Iran… I see the future of Iran as bright – in spite of all the darkness, the loudest voices are those coming from Iranian women and you cannot keep these women silent forever.”
So to answer that man who asked her if she was speaking ‘against’ Iran? No. What Masih Alinejad is doing is ‘giving a voice to the voiceless and stirring the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic human rights, freedom and equality.’
Photo Source: All photos used in this piece have been taken from the ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ Facebook page.