In this series on self-censorship, we asked writers, artists, journalists and human rights activists to define self-censorship. Where possible, they are invited to give examples of their experiences, and to describe what they have witnessed.

We presented each interviewee with the same set of questions, adapting them or asking further questions where relevant.

Our intention was for the interviewees to express their own perspective of self-censorship.

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Masih Alinejad is the founder of the My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page, which champions women’s right to not to wear the Islamic headscarf. The campaign has been a constant irritant for the Islamic Republic of Iran — in particular, those authorities who see themselves as guardians of the hijab and overseers of moral conduct in society. 

As My Stealthy Freedom has built its audience, it has also turned into an outlet for Iranian citizen journalists, who have used it to publicize news and events — such as acid attacks against women in Isfahan — that Iranian officials prefer to ignore or cover up.

Before leaving Iran for England in fear of imminent arrest, Alinejad was an investigative journalist and a parliamentary reporter. 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.

Our interview with Masih Alinejad will be published in three parts.

How do you define self-censorship?

Self-censorship is a painful word. We have lived with it for so long that we have internalized it. Self-censorship has become a daily affliction in our lives. We carry it around like a body organ and think that it is part of our nature. It is only when we discover what harm it does that we can find a way to escape its trap. It will stay glued to you and will be with you everywhere until and unless you talk about it.

Is self-censorship a cultural misconduct or prudence?

First we have to decide from what angle we want to look at this predicament. People are worried about social judgments and prejudices and try to present themselves in a guise that society approves of. They try to project a socially-sanctioned but false and untrue image of themselves. It is the same fear of judgments and prejudices that imposes self-censorship.

The bigger self-censorship Iranian people have to deal with is the fear of security agencies and prosecution by the judiciary. Little by little, it has become internalized and has come to dominate the lives of especially journalists, writers and people active in cinema and culture. This government-imposed self-censorship is more pervasive than personal self-censorship.

Altogether I believe that Iranian society is the victim of a systematic self-censorship that the government has imposed and has infected the culture with as well so that, even without the government looking over their shoulders, people are fearful of judgments and prejudices and have come to a peaceful co-existence with self-censorship.

Iran is a self-censoring society. Is this self-censorship rooted in Iranian culture or in its history and political events?

If we are talking about Iran, then self-censorship is more rooted in the dictatorship. I am not exonerating society for self-censorship, for living a double-life, for being somehow hypocritical and for wanting you to be a conformist. But I do say that self-censorship is systematic and imposed by the government. Why? Because when you recognize that you are a woman — no, even when you are a little girl — you are taught throughout the educational system that you must leave your true self somewhere at home and you must constantly practice doing so.

A girl of seven has no idea what censorship it. A child’s feelings are untainted. She is worried neither about others’ judgment nor about the government. But when she starts school — or even before that — she is subjected to a series of “dos” and “don’ts” by the family. The traditional culture is used on her as a means of repression and censorship. A girl who has learned since childhood that her brother is different from her censors herself so as not to invite the wrath of her family and people around her.

But this distorted culture does not affect only the girls. Since childhood, the boys are also taught that they own their sisters and other women in the family. They teach him to be zealous in guarding their honor. And as time passes these teachings are internalized. Even if he loves to go bicycling with his sister or play alongside her with other neighborhood boys, he has been taught by the family that he is a boy and that he must protect his sister’s honor and observe social norms. So he censors himself and tries to project a zealot image of himself so that he will be a hero to other members of the family.

This culture and this wrong kind of education forces girls to censor themselves and their desires, starting as children. She censors her joys, her sorrows and her behavior because the culture expects her to be chaste. Then, little by little, this girl enters school and steps into the society. At that point she must leave behind her true self at home and appear in an outfit imposed by the government. This imposed outfit is the forced hijab.

A girl of seven loves her hair and loves her body but when she goes to school she must forget that her hair is part of her body. The hair is replaced by a piece of cloth, by a headscarf, and her body is replaced by a manteau. As time goes by she gets so used to this piece of cloth that she takes it everywhere with her, convinced that her chastity and her social character is protected by that piece of cloth. But this is a kind of self-censorship that has been imposed on her.

But it is not only about forced hijab. The educational system and the government tell her what kind of music she can listen to at home. Then little by little she learns to lie. Of course the present generation is way ahead of my generation. My generation lied to save itself. If, for example, members of her family drank wine she lied to protect both herself and her family. So in such systems of education and government it is first of all the government that injects self-censorship into the society. Then self-censorship takes over the culture and becomes part of the people’s identity. If an Iranian woman does not censor herself she will be denied all her rights for living in the society.

If an Iranian woman does not draw a line around herself then the society and the government will crisscross her entire body with lines. From the age of seven, if a woman says “no” to self-censorship, says “no” to forced hijab, she will lose the right to exist. She will not be able to study, she will not be able to find a job and she will not be able to play any part whatsoever in the society. In Iran’s public domain, women are totally censored.

The regime does not accomplish this only through Morality Patrols or plainclothes police or by expelling you. It spends money to do it through the culture. It spends billions to make these kinds of self-censorship into part and parcel of the society’s belief system. They act culturally to convince us that “this forced hijab is not really something to fret about because we are going to do a lot of greater things for you.” They convince women that forced hijab is not very important and [women] accept their word for it without even noticing it. But this piece of cloth is a big symbol of oppression. And more painful than that piece of cloth is the habit of self-censorship.

An Iranian woman thinks that this is very natural and tells herself “it is unnatural if I don’t do it.” Even our expressions and proverbs are sad. For example, they say “blend in with the crowd if you don’t want to be notorious.” It is not the government that says this but ordinary people in their everyday conversations. But I believe that we must tell ourselves a thousand times a day: “Be notorious if you don’t want to blend in with the crowd.”

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