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.
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, when the government denied 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.
In today’s world, social media sites and networks have the first word. My Stealthy Freedom has been one of the most successful civil rights campaigns for Iranians. It started on Facebook and went international thanks to all the people who participated, and of course because of your work and your perseverance. Given the influence of social media, how effective can governments actually be in censoring arts, literature and individuals? And what role does self-censorship play?
Social networks are very effective in shaping culture. We have had a society that is not used to having conversations about red lines. Each person has been wandering around on his own isolated island. Social networks have given us the power to express ourselves publicly and transparently and write about our preoccupations and anxieties.
Social networking sites have had two big impacts. First, people find each other and find out that they are not alone. When the wandering islands of loneliness come across each other they become stronger in demolishing self-censorship. Second, official and government media can no longer ignore part of the society. Social networks put the voice of the censored part of the society on loudspeaker.
Discussion about self-censorship would not be complete without pointing out the positive impact social networks have had on society. They have pushed aside a great expanse of self-censorship. More and more people express their own true selves and this makes me very happy. Without a doubt social networks have played a spectacular role in shattering government censorship and individual self-censorship.
In the past, if a woman was flogged because she had been caught at a mixed-gender party, she would think she should not tell her story and so she remained silent. Many people in Iran are arrested for drinking wine or going to mixed parties and the court sentences them to flogging. In the past, they tried to hide this and censored themselves. But it was not only the government that was responsible for this act of self-censorship. It issued and carried out the sentence of flogging, but it was us citizens who stayed silent about those wounds and those lashes.
But it is no longer like this. In the past, if a member of a family was a political prisoner, or if a family member had been executed, the family would move a few villages away to isolate themselves. They would hide in the closet so that they would not have to talk about it because society was not understanding. But now we can see that the citizens are gaining power through social networks. They now feel that if they have a political prisoner in the family or if a family member has been sentenced to death, they have not been dishonored and must not feel shame. Instead, they point the finger back at the government.
This is a wonderful thing. I believe that as journalists it is our duty to see the glass half-full aspect of self-censorship and talk about it loudly. Part of our self-censorship is rooted in the dictatorship and the oppressive government, but a significant part of it comes from concepts such as “honor” and “chastity,” which are internalized and are shaped by how we ourselves define them.
Can you tell us about a time when you have self-censored?
Of course I have committed self-censorship. As a woman, I had become a mighty self-censor. Even after I had left Iran I could not overcome this self-censorship. I was afraid of other people’s judgment, I was worried that I would break the hearts of my parents and I was scared that Iranian society would reject me.
For quite some time I wore a hat. It was a hat that I myself had forced on my head and it was much more dangerous and painful than the hijab that the government had imposed on me. I am not saying all Iranian women, but I can say that many women cannot proudly live as their own real selves even when they leave Iran for a free country. For a long time they have to fight within themselves before they can toss out self-censorship and free themselves.
Wearing hijab was not something forced on me by the Morality Patrol or by the law. I was the one who was wounding myself and that wound was called self-censorship, something that had grown inside me since my childhood. And self-censorship is not necessarily due to fear of the family or fear of the government. Sometimes it is purely emotional. I did not want to break the hearts of my traditional parents who live in a village. I did not want to put them to shame in the closed environment of the village. This emotional pressure led me to censor myself.
In the early days I thought that society would not look kindly at me for supporting gays and the Baha’is. They might say that I myself am homosexual or a Baha’i. I felt that if they called me a homosexual or a Baha’i it was an insult. For many long years I had grown up in a culture that had internalized these fears.
Outside Iran, when my reports were first published and some people insulted me, I was pained. I thought I must prove that defending the Baha’is did not mean that I was one. The same thing happened when it came to homosexuals. This shows that I was scared and, as a result, I was vulnerable and weak in the face of insults. But that is no longer me. I use their insults against them, and try to show people what they really are.