Global and Iranian history are both closely intertwined with the lives and destinies of prominent figures. Every one of them has laid a brick on history’s wall, sometimes paying the price with their lives, men and women alike. Women have been especially influential in the past 200 years, writing much of contemporary Iranian history.
In Iran, women have increased public awareness about gender discrimination, raised the profile of and improved women’s rights, fought for literacy among women, and promoted the social status of women by counteracting religious pressures, participating in scientific projects, being involved in politics, influencing music, cinema… And so the list goes on.
This series aims to celebrate these renowned and respected Iranian women. They are women who represent the millions of women that influence their families and societies on a daily basis. Not all of the people profiled in the series are endorsed by IranWire, but their influence and impact cannot be overlooked. The articles are biographical stories that consider the lives of influential women in Iran.
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Journalist Masih Alinejad is the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page, which has succeeded in becoming a constant irritant for the guardians of the hejab and morality in the Islamic Republic of Iran. As it has built its audience, it has also turned into an outlet for Iranian citizen journalists, who have used it as an opportunity to publicize news and events — such as acid attacks against women in Isfahan — that Iranian officials prefer to ignore or cover up.
Masoumeh (Masih) Alinejad was born in 1976 in a village near Babol in northern Iran. She became politically active at an early age. In 1996, agents of the Intelligence Ministry arrested the pregnant Alinejad, her brother and her former husband for passing out leaflets and posting graffiti that criticized the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Court tried them without giving them access to a lawyer. Alinejad was soon released but her brother and husband spent two and a half years in prison.
“The media wrote nothing about us,” she told IranWire. “I was thinking that a lot of people pay the price in villages and provincial towns and the media never talks about them. So I decided to leave the provinces and go to Tehran. I did not want to belong to a small student group that the government could suppress without paying a price. And it did suppress us. But if I worked for newspapers I could criticize in a louder voice. When I joined reformist newspapers I could criticize those in power from close up. I went to Tehran and decided that I wanted to become a journalist.”
In 2001, Alinejad began her journalism career with the reformist newspaper Hamshahri. She also contributed to many reformist newspapers, including Shargh and Bahar, most of which were later banned. Later, she became the parliamentary reporter for the Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA).
Her style was aggressive, which did not endear her to many politicians. In 2005, she disclosed in an article that members of parliament were being paid huge sums in new year bonuses and supported her claim by reproducing three of their paystubs. This created an uproar, and many MPs criticized her using abusive language. After this, she was banned from entering parliament.
But Alinejad continued her investigative journalism. In the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential election, while the government was denying that there had been any violence against demonstrators, she was able to document and publish the names of 57 people who were killed during demonstrations.
After the election, the government launched an extensive crackdown on freedom of speech and arrested a vast number of journalists, bloggers and people who had been active on social networks. Feeling imminent danger, Alinejad decided to leave Iran for England.
Before leaving Iran she wrote two books including A Crown of Thorns, which was about her own life and her expulsion from parliament as a reporter.
In May 2014, she launched the My Stealthy Freedom page on Facebook, publishing photographs of herself not wearing the Islamic headscarf and appealing to Iranian women to send her similar photographs of themselves and a short note about their experience. The response was enthusiastic and immediate.
“The first time that I posted photos of myself with and without my head covered, we received a whole lot of similar pictures, ie, pictures of women with and without their heads covered,” she told IranWire. “Many of them had something to say as well. ‘The picture on the left is my passport photo,’ wrote one. ‘The problem for Iranian women is that when we want to travel our passport photos are very different from us.’ This has happened to me as well.” She described how passport officials looked at her passport and looked at her and said, “Which one are you? The one in the passport or the one who is standing before me?” She said she had to explain “that for the past 30 years I have been the same two! The one that you see in the passport is the one that the government wants and the one that you see standing before you is the real me.”
But the outpouring was not limited to women. “One of the things that I really loved was that not all men made fun of us,” she says. “Many men joined their wives, their sisters or their mothers, took a picture and sent it to the page to declare their solidarity. The comments were approving, too. A man sent a picture in which he is holding a scarf flying over his head. He saw his own freedom in the freedom of his partner.”
The popularity of the page in Iran grew fast and it is now “liked” by more than 880,000 people. Needless to say, this popularity irritated religious conservatives and hardliners in Iran to no end. Besides the usual insults against Alinejad — some called her a prostitute — Iranian state-run TV broadcast a false report claiming that Masih Alinejad had been raped in London in front of her son. The undertone of most reports about rapes in official Islamic Republic media is that the raped woman is at least partially is responsible for the event. The report about Alinejad was designed to provide evidence that Alinejad is “morally corrupt” and that this was what the women who does not wear hejab should expect.
In response to this false report, Alinejad posted a video of herself singing in a London underground metro station. She also filed a complaint through a lawyer in Iran against the producer of the TV program in Iran. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian judiciary has taken no action.
When in October 2014, a string of acid attacks took place in Isfahan, official reports listed only four women as victims, although unofficial numbers were higher. But women from Isfahan started to send pictures and even videos to My Stealthy Freedom page and a more comprehensive picture began to emerge from the attacks, a picture of the official apathy and the defiant reaction of many women in the city.
In February 2015, the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, a group of 20 non-governmental organizations, presented Alinejad with a women’s rights award for “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.”
“I'm delighted to receive this award,” said Alinejad in a statement soon after. ““From seven-year-old schoolgirls to 70-year-old grandmothers, women in Iran are all forced to wear the hejab. Hopefully this award will create an opportunity for the voices of Iranian women who say no to forced hejab to echo throughout the halls of the United Nations.”
In 2014, Alinejad moved from England to the United States. Besides continuing her work on the My Stealthy Freedom page, she hosts a satirical show on the Voice of America’s Persian Service and is a correspondent for Radio Farda, a 24-hour radio station in Persian funded by the US government.
Also in the series:
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