Fixers is a series from What's Working that profiles the people behind the most creative solutions to big problems.
In Iran, the media widely reports that journalist Masih Alinejad was once raped under the influence of mind-altering drugs in London. This is entirely false. But it is part of the vicious smear campaign in her home country that prevents her from returning there anytime soon. Despite this, she has managed to become one of Iran’s leading women’s rights activists thanks to her deft hand with social media.
Through her Facebook community, My Stealthy Freedom, Alinejad has been encouraging Iranian women to post photos of themselves without the mandatory hijab, or veil, to protest the restrictive policies of the Islamic government. Since she started the page in May 2014, it has garnered over 897,000 likes.
She's been admiringly profiled in Vogue and fêted by the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. But at the same time, she's been slandered by Iranian domestic media, leaving her in the unique bind of being a powerful voice for Iranian women while being unable to set foot on Iranian soil.
Alinejad grew up in Iran -- not in Tehran, but in a small village called Ghomikola, she is quick to point out -- and was forced to wear a veil from the day of her birth. She was imprisoned at 19 for student activism protesting the regime's human rights record, was released early to give birth to her son, and moved to the U.K. in 2009 to study journalism at Oxford Brookes University.
She now lives in Brooklyn and works at Voice of America, the official broadcast institution of the U.S. government, alongside Iranian-American satirist and journalist Saman Arbabi. Arbabi, dubbed the "Jon Stewart of Iran" because of his hit satirical news show "Parazit," is helping Alinejad create a 15-minute weekly video series called "Tablet" based on the My Stealthy Freedom community.
Alinejad and Arbabi have an easy rapport, and when she gets excited, she sometimes runs rapid Farsi phrases by him for translation. They met in 2009 in London, when she was a guest on his radio show. Alinejad had taken to wearing hats around town, recalls Arbabi, because she was transitioning out of the hijab yet still uncomfortable with a fully bare head. "My body was there, but my soul was still in Iran," said Alinejad, who is diminutive and has a prodigious head of curls.
While still an Oxford Brookes student, Alinejad had organized a social media campaign for the Iranian student activist Majid Tavakoli. In 2009, Tavakoli was arrested for protesting, and Iranian authorities forced him to wear female dress, including hijab, in an attempt to humiliate him. Alinejad organized a social media protest called "men wearing hijabs" in solidarity with Tavakoli, by writing a call to action that was taken up by several young activists in Iran. In a subversive (and prescient) twist, Alinejad also suggested that men's discomfort with the hijab underscored how unfair it was to force women to wear it.
That viral protest, along with Iran's "green movement" protesting then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, helped Alinejad realized the power of social media. Its revelation, for Alinejad, is that one doesn't need to be a celebrity to effect change. Alinejad is reticent to self-promote ("I don't even like selfies") and even says she doesn't "want to change the world" so much as the lives of the women affected by her very specific cause.
In addition to her original project to show women sans hijab, Alinejad sometimes takes up the mantle of other civil rights issues through canny hashtags like #LetsKissInIran, which protests the fact that kissing members of the opposite sex on the cheek is punishable by 99 lashes. Or #ItsMensTurn, her attempt to incorporate Iranian men into the struggle for women's rights.
These days, Alinejad and Arbabi, along with their producer, spend long days ensconced in a federal building in downtown Manhattan working on the "Tablet" video series. Since neither of them is allowed to be in Iran or even hire crew in Iran, they rely on the women profiled in each episode to film themselves and send them footage. Several volunteers both in Iran and the U.S. help them with post-production and translation, and the episodes are posted to Facebook.
Each week, the show profiles an Iranian woman dealing with the struggles of everyday life in Iran. Alinejad sends them a list of questions, and sometimes coaches her subjects remotely on how to be more telegenic.
Another recurring segment addresses Iranians' civil rights, like a recent spot explaining women’s rights inside Iran based on the Islamic Republic’s constitution.
The Huffington Post caught up with Alinejad in her office after hours to discuss what the word "stealthy" means to Iranian women, why people underestimate the power of compulsory hijab, and what Western politicians can do for Iranian civil rights.
Is it dangerous for any of these women to put their photo on this site?
For these women, even without sending their pictures, they are already in danger. Being a woman is itself dangerous in Iran. Because you cannot sing, you cannot even travel without getting permission from your husband.
So what I want to say through "Tablet" and My Stealthy Freedom is, don’t victimize these women. Although they are like hostages in the hands of men and the laws inside Iran, they are strong, and they’re fighting for their rights and they’re really successful.
These women don’t want to keep silent when they’re forced to wear hijab.They want to speak out, and they need a platform. And thanks to social media, My Stealthy Freedom has the opportunity to be their voice. So all these women know about the risk of what they have been doing. But living like a hostage is more dangerous.
According to Iranian police, there are 3.6 million women who were warned just for not wearing a "proper" Islamic hijab. In one year, 18,000 of these women were sent to the court for this. Those 18,000 women were not the ones who sent the pictures to me. So without sending me pictures, they were already in danger. So when I ask the women who submit photos several times, "Are you sure you want to publish your picture," they say, "Yes, absolutely, because this is the only way that we can protest against compulsory hijab."
How has being featured on My Stealthy Freedom changed the lives of Iranian women on the ground?
One of my favorite examples is Mohabbhat, a disabled Iranian woman whom we profiled on "Tablet" last month. She originally sent a photo to MSF saying, "Not only do I have to deal with these obstacles with my wheelchair every day, but I also have to worry about my head scarf." So I asked her if she wants to tell her story on video, and she filmed herself going around her city, Isfahan, in a wheelchair, and showed how inaccessible it was. And after the video aired, it had a tremendous response.
Her name, Mohabbhat, means "kindness" in Farsi, and she told us, "I lost touch with kindness both with myself and with society, and after this video, I even meet people in the street how offer me help and rides and kind words."
Being on film was like putting a mirror to her, saying don’t worry about what other people think. It reinforced that she’s a great person, and that she’s talented, and now she is even going to have an art exhibit!
So the audience for My Stealthy Freedom is active, and can enact real-life changes for these women?
Yes, definitely. Just as another example, Masoumeh Atai was another woman we profiled on "Tablet," and she had acid thrown on her face by her father-in-law during a divorce battle. Since we aired the story, the support for her has been overwhelming, and she managed to win custody of her child, which is very difficult to get in Iran.
Are the women who submit photos supported at all by their families? Or are really they putting themselves out there in every way?
In a lot of cases, they are not initially supported, but their loved ones come around. One time I posted a woman's photo, and I got a text from an Iranian man saying, "She is my wife and you're not allowed to publish her picture." And I was really scared, so I deleted it. Then she found out that I deleted the picture and emailed me, and I told her that her husband forbade me from publishing her photo. And she replied, "So you're fighting for women’s rights, but you're not even giving me a chance to fight for my right inside my house? You listen to my husband and you deleted my picture?"
So I put it back up, very reluctantly. Recently, about six months later, I got a video submission of a schoolgirl showing how restrictive her chador [full body garment] was, and I heard a man's voice behind the camera. And that, I found out, was the husband from the earlier story! So he went from condemning his wife's action to supporting his wife and daughter in their fight against hijab. And I was very pleased.
So it is a question of change within households as much as it is a civil rights issue.
Right. What we do on the show is not necessarily anti-government or anti-religion or anything like that. It’s a social issue, and a lot of the problems in Iran have nothing to do with the government. It’s within the society. It’s what happens with the husbands and the brothers control everything at home.
Why is the compulsory hijab so central to human rights in Iran? And what do you say to people who suggest it's more of a secondary issue in the grand scheme of things?
Certainly people try to dismiss it by saying that Iran has many, many other problems, and this is just a little piece of cloth – but it’s not. To the government it’s very important. It’s the backbone of this government. Because if you go to Iran, how can you understand that this is the Islamic Republic of Iran? Through women, through their veils.
If you had heard [the late] Ayatollah Khomeini’s speeches or the [current] Ayatollah Khameini today, you would know that it’s definitely the number two most important cultural issue to them, after like, "the West."
Iran's Cultural Minister Ali Jannati essentially said in a recent speech, "Be careful, the West just asked us for a nuclear deal, and the second step might be equality for women!" That's the prominence of this issue for them.
So what we are fighting is not just hijab. Hijab is just the first step towards full equality, and that’s why they don’t want to give us this first right. From the age of seven [when girls begin primary school], they force you to be someone else. And when they take your true identity away from you, how you can control what’s going on inside your head? When you don't control your head, you don't control anything.
“When you don't control your own head, you don't control anything.”
It seems like both you and the government are keenly sensitive to the power of language. Has My Stealthy Freedom impacted the official rhetoric around hijab at all?
Yes, I think so. Ever since the 1979 revolution, whenever the government discussed hijab they called it an "order from God." But in recent years, whenever they have conferences inside Iran, they refer to it as the issue of the “compulsory hijab.” And I think My Stealthy Freedom changed their terminology, in that they changed their tune from divine law to acknowledging that this is an artificial ruling.
Before My Stealthy Freedom, there were a lot of women activists trying to talk about hijab. But now the whole society is talking about it.
What exactly do you mean by the word "stealthy" in your project's name? What is the Farsi word that it approximates?
The word stealthy is a translation of "yavoshaki," which means “hidden.” And this means a lot for a woman who grew up in Iran. If you fell in love with someone: yavoshaki. You travel with your partner: yavoshaki. You take off your scarf: yavoshaki. Alcohol is yavoshaki. Dating is yavoshaki. Dancing is yavoshaki. Music is yavoshaki. Singing is yavoshaki. Everything you can imagine that’s normal to you and me exists in Iran but you have to hide it, as if it doesn’t exist: yavoshaki. Why? Because it’s a crime, and according to Iranian penal code, you get lashes.
Which isn't to say it doesn't happen. We are just stealthy about it. Whatever you want Iranians not to do, just tell them not to do it.
How has the civil rights situation changed since [relative moderate] Hassan Rouhani was elected in 2013?
Nothing has changed about women’s rights. Nothing has changed about human rights. Actually, the number of executions is even higher. The main focus with Rouhani is the nuclear issue. He is there to deal with the West, not with his own people. I would argue that it’s even gotten worse for human rights, because the people have taken their foot off the gas, so to speak, because of the Iran deal issue. Since Rouhani lifted sanctions a little, the people who were once unhappy with the government don’t speak up anymore, because they think the little that’s been given to them will be taken away.
You have spoken before on how you think foreign female politicians should protest Iran's policies.
Yes. Iran is the only country that requires all women, even visiting women, to wear the hijab. Even Saudi Arabia doesn't do that. So I think when foreign dignitaries visit Iran, they should refuse the hijab. When foreigners are silent, our government becomes more powerful. I think many are too scared of political correctness to do this, but I think it's absolutely necessary.
“When foreigners are silent, our government becomes more powerful.”
Have you received support or submissions from other Islamic countries in the Middle East?
Yes, we've received support from Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. One woman submitted a photo from Saudi Arabia, but then decided it was too risky and retracted it. Iraq: No, nothing. One of our "Tablet" mini-documentaries is about two sisters from Afghanistan. They’re Afghan refugees, aged 19 and 22, who lived in Iran, had very religious parents, just decided to escape to Turkey. They said that they never had a chance to dance, that it was a crime for them, so that’s why they dance on Facebook and film themselves dancing and even singing. They do everything in Facebook. Their real life now is on Facebook.
That's such an interesting way to phrase that. How do you think people in repressed societies use Facebook and social media differently?
The unique and kind of crazy situation in Iran is that this regime is not operating like North Korea, without Internet. So even if its citizens can't travel out of the country, when they're connected to the outside world online, it’s easy to realize how ridiculous the government is. People in "underground" Iran live a normal life, and it’s the surface that’s just a totally unnatural, fake façade.
Facebook is our weapon. Between [Arbabi and myself], we have a reach of almost 2 million on Facebook. And I think the next revolution in Iran is going to be the woman revolution. That’s why the government is really scared of us, really just the Facebook page. They’ve got weapons, they’ve got prisons, they’ve got money, they’ve got everything. We’ve got only Facebook. And that still scares them. Why? Because they don’t want women to be empowered. They don’t want women to be that loud.
This interview was made possible by transcription services from NYC Transcription. Interview text has been edited and condensed.