Exiled Journalist Continues To Fight For Women's Rights In Iran
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's not safe for my guest to return to Iran, so she's spent the past nine years in exile, first in London and now in Brooklyn. Masih Alinejad was 2 years old in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah and took away the rights of women. Her opposition to the regime started when she was young. She was imprisoned when she was 18. After becoming a journalist, she covered the Iranian Parliament, but as a result of her reporting on corrupt officials, she was expelled from the Parliament building and banned from returning, the first reporter to have that distinction. She covered human rights abuses in Iran until she was forced to leave the country.
In exile, she became an activist against the law requiring that all females, starting at age 7, cover their heads and necks with a hijab. She started two opposition campaigns on Facebook. In the first, called My Stealthy Freedom, she asked women to take photos of themselves in secret, not wearing a hijab, and post those photos. Last year, Alinejad's campaign White Wednesdays asked women to wear something white on Wednesdays as symbols of protest against the compulsory hijab and post those photos. Now Alinejad has a new memoir, called "The Wind In My Hair: My Fight For Freedom In Modern Iran."
Masih Alinejad, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did you make the hijab your issue?
MASIH ALINEJAD: Oh, my God, the first question (laughter). It's about, like, my childhood. You know, when I was 7 years old starting school, I had to wear hijab.
GROSS: That's when the law makes it compulsory.
ALINEJAD: Yeah. I mean, it's about the law and my personal history. It's about my family as well, my father. I had to wear a compulsory hijab inside the house, as well. And if you see my picture, I have too much hair. It was not easy to cover them up. So maybe that was the reason from the beginning when I was a child because I didn't have any, you know, clue about freedom of choice, freedom of expression, nothing. I just wanted to feel the wind in my hair, to be as free as my brother.
GROSS: And you even had to sleep with the hijab.
ALINEJAD: Yeah. It's - in my village and all my family, like my mother, my sister, my sister-in-law, I mean, in fact, all the female in my family, they wear hijab even inside the house. And maybe that is why because the school, social pressure, the law and the family made me do a rebellion.
GROSS: So when you were living in exile in England and then in the U.S., you started a campaign for women to, like, liberate their hair, liberate themselves and take off the hijab and show pictures of themselves doing that. And, you know, this was at great risk to you and to the women who did that. Symbolically, what does the hijab mean to you?
ALINEJAD: Let me tell you the story behind hijab because some people really get me wrong when I say that I am against compulsory hijab. They think that - why you are fighting against that small piece of cloth? We are not fighting against a small piece of cloth. We are fighting against the philosophy behind it, the men behind these compulsory hijab laws telling us what to wear, how to behave, what kind of lifestyle to follow.
So for me and millions of Iranian women, compulsory hijab is just the most visible symbol of oppression. It's just the first step after the revolution that the government started to control our body. So that is why I always say that when you want to understand what compulsory hijab means, just wear it one day in your daily life.
GROSS: You tell me, what does it feel like to wear it?
ALINEJAD: First of all, when you wear it by choice, it's totally different. And I myself, I grew up in a small village. So from the beginning when I was wearing the hijab, I thought it's just my identity. It's like the link between me and my community, my family. So when you wear it every day, it's going to be part of your body. So for me, from the beginning, it was not that difficult, you know. And even when I left Iran, it was not even easy for me to take it off in public in my media appearance because I thought, oh, my God, I'm going to just, you know, lose my family. I'm going to lose emotional support from my friends and my mother and my father. So many pressure behind this small piece of cloth.
And when I started to take it off in Iran in stealth, in secret, when police were not around, when my father was not around, I felt like, oh, my God, this is my true self. This is me. I enjoy everything about me. I started to like my body. I started to like my hair. But before that, I was like ashamed of my body. I was full of guiltiness. You know, from the age of 7, they've been telling us that you're going to be hanged by your hair in the hall if you show your hair in public.
So all this guiltiness was with me I was carrying from my childhood to even like here in the U.K. and in America. And now I just understand that it's not just about me. It's about millions of other women in Iran. They have the same feeling. They don't like their body when they wear it by force.
GROSS: I think there are other reasons you were taught to hate your body. You used to call it when you were going through puberty - you called your breasts orbs of sin because you were told that women's bodies were temptations to men and you had to cover them and that, you know, your body was bad.
ALINEJAD: My body was bad when I was a teenager, the time that I had to like my body, I used to hate my body. I was really ashamed of my body. When I talk about it, it makes me really sad. I always was told by so many men, teachers, you know, my family, like, so many people around me that your body is sin. Men can get provoked by your body. And so it was my responsibility to take care of the men in society. I was told that if somebody rape you, it's your fault because you didn't cover yourself. So that is why actually when I launched my campaign, the government of Iran made a fake news on Iranian state TV saying that Masih Alinejad was raped in London by three men. Why? Because she started to undress herself.
GROSS: They said you started to undress under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
ALINEJAD: Yeah. It was beyond sad from the beginning when I heard that news on Iranian state TV saying that Masih used drugs because I've never used drugs. It was a lie. And I knew that my parents are going to listen to the TV. The news channel of my country was really popular in my village as well. And I was like, oh, my God, my parents are going to believe that. How are they going to react? And it was more shameful because I knew that some of the people still think that if you're raped, it's your fault because you're a woman. So I was crying. My son was laughing. My mom called me, she was crying. And I was in the middle. My son was laughing. My mom was crying.
GROSS: Wait. Why was your son laughing?
ALINEJAD: My son was laughing loud and saying, Mom, you won the battle because the government cannot do anything to you. So they made this, you know, fake rape scene to shame you. That means you've won the battle. Just laugh. Just laugh. And then I was like, what I'm going to do with my mom? Because I knew that my mom going to be ashamed.
So I was the symbol of the generation who always was like in the middle, being ashamed of her body, you know, don't know how to explain to the traditional, you know, family. And the future, the people like my son, they never care about this kind of accusation. So I was in the middle, and I had to make a decision how to react. So it was not easy. But I went to that subway that they said that I was raped there, and I started to sing because singing is forbidden for a woman inside Iran.
GROSS: So you started to sing, and then you made a video - YouTube of that and posted it.
ALINEJAD: I love you. You know everything about me, and I love that. Yeah.
GROSS: So that was an act of defiance. It was like, you can't do anything to me. I'm living in England. You can't lock me up. You can't stop me from writing. You can't stop me from posting this YouTube. It was a message of defiance to the authorities and to other women.
ALINEJAD: I was really sad as well. So all the time when I'm sad, I go to bathroom or subway because it makes my sound beautiful when I sing. That was the first reason. But another reason was like singing solo is forbidden in my country. And I had to react to this, you know, horrible news. I didn't know what to do because I knew that my mom was really sad. So I started to sing something about my homeland.
And I wrote this caption that here in the subway, I sing solo. Nobody attacked me. I show my hair, nobody beating me up in the subway. And you think that I was raped here? No. You're always, you know, rape women's thought in Iran. And we never have the same freedom as I do here. So - by the way, I have a good voice. I can sing for you.
GROSS: Yes, I'm going to ask you 'cause you say in your book, I have a beautiful voice. If you want to hear it, just ask me. I'm asking.
ALINEJAD: I can sing the song that I, you know, was a reaction to the...
ALINEJAD: ...state TV, yeah. It was about my homeland. It was a song from Afghanistan. And I knew that, you know, the women from Afghanistan can feel the same pain. (Singing in foreign language).
GROSS: That's really beautiful. You really do have a beautiful voice. You weren't kidding in your book.
ALINEJAD: Thank you so much. Well, I never had the chance to take a singing course, which is my dream (laughter).
GROSS: Because in Iran, it was illegal for women to sing, so singing lessons would've been out of the question?
ALINEJAD: You know, it was not actually the reason. I myself grew up in a really traditional family and poor family. And when you're poor, food and money is important than everything in your life. I remember that I always wanted to have a bicycle. And, you know, it was during the war. And then my father or my mom was saying that, look, all your brothers, they are in the war and you're thinking about having a bicycle and just enjoying yourself?
So any time when I was asking for taking a singing course, having a bicycle, enjoying myself, going to the river, swimming, as, you know, my little brother was just enjoying his freedom, it was not the right time because I was poor, because it was the war. It was the revolution. It was sanctioned. And anytime I was asking about my personal freedom, kept hearing this is not the right time. So that is why actually I was left behind.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Masih Alinejad, and she's the author of a new memoir called "The Wind In My Hair: My Fight For Freedom In Modern Iran." And she has led a movement of women taking off the hijab, the head and neck covering that is compulsory for women in Iran. She's also a journalist who covered Parliament and covered human rights issues in Iran. She was expelled from Parliament, she was forced out of the country.
She lived in exile in England and now lives in exile in Brooklyn. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Masih Alinejad, and she's an Iranian journalist and women's rights activist. She's a feminist, who's now living in exile in Brooklyn. She had covered Iranian Parliament and was expelled from Parliament for exposing corruption there. She was basically forced out of the country. And now she's written a memoir. And her memoir is titled "The Wind In My Hair: My Fight For Freedom In Modern Iran." And it's called "The Wind In My Hair" because she's led a movement for women to oppose the compulsory wearing of the hijab, the head and neck covering that women are legally required to wear or else they will be arrested.
So you've led two campaigns against the compulsory hijab while you've been living in exile. The first was called My Stealthy Freedom and the second was called White Wednesdays. So I'm going to read the post that you wrote when you started the My Stealthy Freedom Campaign. And the idea was to remove your hijab in a place where you were free, where no one would be looking and you could do it and then take a picture of yourself and post it on Facebook.
You wrote, (reading) if you are a woman who doesn't believe in compulsory hijab, no matter where you are, you'll create your own stealthy freedom so you are not ruined by the weight of coercion and compulsion. Coercion is not just from the morality police. Sometimes pressure comes from family, sometimes from the employer and sometimes there is pressure to conform so we are not judged negatively. I have experienced all these forms of coercion, and I'm willing to bet that the majority of Iranian women who don't believe in compulsory hijab have tasted stealthy freedom. I'm willing to make another bet that these women have photos of their stealthy freedom moments that don't hurt anyone.
Shall we publish our photos of driving without headscarves, walking without a veil in the woods or by the sea or on top of a tree or in the desert where we can breathe freely? Here's my stealthy freedom photograph on the Haraz motorway going north. So I think the question that was raised when you started this campaign was if women post photos of themselves without the compulsory hijab, will they get into trouble? Will they be arrested? Were you putting women in danger?
ALINEJAD: It is a punishable crime. I have to admit that. Yes, women put themselves in danger. They risk their lives to protest against compulsory hijab. But let me tell you something. In 2014 when I launched my campaign, police announced that 3.6 million women were stopped in the street, warned and sent to the court just because they were, you know, having inappropriate hijab. And within a year, 40,000 cars were impounded. Why? Because women were unveiled inside the car. So you see, these women were not the ones sending photos to me.
They were just having their normal life in the streets of Iran, but they were already in danger. So that is why actually women have started to join the campaign because they were fed up, you know? They were tired of morality police, being beaten up, being humiliated, being told what to wear, being arrested, being sent to the court. They were fed up by any kind of religious interference in their personal life. That is actually the reason they joined my campaign. So I am not the one putting them in danger.
This is the Islamic Republic of Iran putting women in danger in all our lives.
GROSS: Do you know if any women were arrested because they participated either in the White Wednesday or Stealthy Freedom campaigns?
ALINEJAD: Yes, the Iranian police announced that 29 people got arrested just because of participating on White Wednesdays campaign. One of them called Shopa Zadeh (ph), she was actually the mother of 9-year-old son. She put the headscarf on a stick and she got arrested. I felt guilty because she was one of the main activists of White Wednesdays. But she got released on bail. And in front of the court, she took off her white headscarf. And she said that, you know, I'm still fighting against compulsory hijab. And there was another woman, Shima Bobadi (ph), she got arrested again just because of White Wednesdays campaign.
I got really, you know, panic attacked. I got shocked. I was really scared and getting - feel guilty that, you know, I'm here. I'm safe. And these women getting arrested. But Shima went in front of the court and very - send me a video of herself taking off her headscarf and saying that by arresting me, by threatening me, you cannot keep me silent. I say no to compulsory hijab even louder. So these are the women actually getting arrested.
GROSS: So your activism created a rift in your family, especially with your father. So your father was a strong supporter of the Iranian Revolution when the ayatollah became the leader and it became an Islamic country. And this is also when women started to be required to wear the hijab. Your father was also a member of the Basij, which is a paramilitary group that comes under the Iran Revolutionary Guard. And what did your father do in the Basij?
ALINEJAD: You know, talking about my father is not easy for me because I remember that when he was part of the basiji, I had a really hard time. I had to fight for my rights even inside the house. And he broke my heart several times. I didn't actually want to write about this story in my book because I still love him, you know. And I think - it's not easy for a daughter who hasn't seen his father - her father for nine years to talk about this kind of thing. That first time when I took off my long black chador, my hijab off in the street, he saw me, and he spit on me. And it was not easy. He said that you brought shame in the family. You know, he loves me, but he has stopped talking to me. He doesn't support my campaign. He thinks I'm a traitor. And he actually doesn't want my mother to talk to me. So it's not easy.
GROSS: Does she talk to you in spite of that?
ALINEJAD: Yes, my mom loves me. My mom is a true feminist, although she never went to university. She doesn't have any education. She cannot even read and write. But she's a true feminist, you know. She supports me when I wanted to be my true self.
GROSS: Getting back to your father, when you were growing up and he was in the Basij, the paramilitary group, he was one of the people who used to patrol, stopping cars and confiscating audiotapes and other things that were forbidden.
ALINEJAD: It's so sad. It's beyond sad. I know my father will be upset if he reads the book, but he made so many young people upset that time. And - oh, my God. It's not easy to talk about my father. But I'm still proud of myself, you know, because there are so many - like the son of Ayatollah Khomeini never criticize his father who did the mass executions inside Iran. And those, you know, reformists who are still in power, they never criticize their father. But I criticize my father who is just a farmer, who is not a politician because I strongly believe that if you want to challenge the whole system, the government, the regime, you have to start it from your own house. So as I said in my book, yes, I started my revolution from my kitchen, from my house.
GROSS: My guest is Iranian journalist and feminist Masih Alinejad. Her new memoir is called "The Wind In My Hair." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll hear reviews of a new novel by Stephen McCauley and a new album by saxophonist Jon Irabagon. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist and feminist activist now living in exile in Brooklyn. She has a new memoir called "The Wind In My Hair," a reference to her social media campaigns to end the Iranian law requiring all girls and women after age 7 to cover their heads with a hijab. She's been living in exile for nine years. She now reports for Voice of America. In Iran, she covered the Parliament, but after exposing corruption within it, she was expelled from the building and banned from returning. It's now unsafe for her to return to her country. She started protesting when she was a teenager.
So you are arrested when you were 18. You had just gotten married. You had like half of the marriage, you know, because there's like two parts, you say, in Iran. The first part is the legal part, and then there's the family part where there's a big celebration. You're not considered really married until you had the celebration. You hadn't yet had the celebration when you and your husband were arrested. What were you arrested for?
ALINEJAD: I became involved in student activities, and then I got arrested with my ex-husband, my brother, my ex-sister-in-law. We were so young. Yeah. It was before the celebration, the wedding party. And I got arrested just because I got involved in student activities - distributing pamphlets against the government in our town Babol, north of Iran. In that time, it was not easy for us because we were not allowed to have our own lawyer to defend us in the court. Another thing, you know, we didn't have the celebration - the wedding party. And I - inside the solitary confinement, I just found out that I am pregnant.
GROSS: Let me stop you there. The way you describe it in the book, you found out that you were pregnant from one of the prison authorities. I think from...
ALINEJAD: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Your interrogator who found out from your husband. How did your husband know and you not know that you were pregnant?
ALINEJAD: You know, I was a young girl. And when I didn't have my period, I was so excited. I'm telling my husband that, hey, I don't get periods anymore. I don't know why. I was so excited because I was a naughty (ph) girl. I was climbing the tree and mountain. And I found that, OK, now I'm more relaxed. My husband was, like, telling me, no, but this is a sign. And I didn't want to accept that, and I was fighting. No, this is not the sign of being pregnant. But when he got arrested and I was in my own solitary confinement, he was in his own.
So the interrogator came to me and asked me, did you get your period? And I said no. He said yeah. So you're pregnant. And I said, how do you know that? And he said because the - you know, your husband told us. And I got shocked in that time because they said that when you don't get your period, that means you're pregnant. So in Iranian school, you never get this kind of education. So I didn't know that, and I was only a 19-year-old. At that time, I was - as I told you, I had two battles to fight - with my family and the government because being pregnant before the wedding - it's a scandal in the village.
GROSS: Right. So it's amazing that you didn't know that not menstruating could be a sign that you were pregnant.
ALINEJAD: No, I didn't know. And there are many things about, you know - it's forbidden in Iranian school to teach people about these things. And still just today, actually, I broke the news of a rape in Iran, which a teacher actually raped a student. And people are actually talking about this - that, why in Islamic republic we are not allowed to be educated about sexual relation and this kind of thing about our bodies?
GROSS: So, you know, when you got divorced, that's when you became a journalist, which it turns out was really your calling. You became a journalist and an activist. But when you got divorced, you lost custody of your son. So is it law that the custody of a child always goes to the husband in a divorce?
ALINEJAD: That's the law. Yeah. The custody of the child goes to the husband. As a mother, you have to fight to get the custody of your child back, which is not actually easy in Iran.
GROSS: So you were allowed to see your son, I think, like once a week. Is that right?
ALINEJAD: I was allowed to see my son once a week and - and, you know, I had to fight for my rights and to get the custody of child, to - for so many things, as I told you. That was just one thing in my life.
GROSS: Yeah. So after you basically had to flee Iran - or else you would've been imprisoned, and you lived in exile in England - you managed to get your son out of Iran through Turkey to England where he learned English and studied. And I think - is he studying in Oxford now? Do I have that right?
ALINEJAD: No, he is studying in Brighton.
GROSS: In Brighton. OK. So how did you get him out? Did you have to fight your ex-husband? Did your ex-husband know that you were trying to get him out of Iran for good?
ALINEJAD: You know, my ex-husband has changed like I did. He found out that all the laws are against women's inside - women's right inside Iran. And he shouldn't take benefit - advantage of that. And actually, my son helped us - both of us to - you know, being taught and talk about this. And I have to say that my ex-husband is now fighting for women's rights as well.
GROSS: So your son is living in England. You're living in Brooklyn. Has the travel ban - which has been in the courts for months - has that affected your ability to see him or his ability to come to the U.S. and see you?
ALINEJAD: It was from the beginning. It's complicated again. From the beginning, it was about the green card holders, and we couldn't help it. He couldn't come here. And I was worried if I go back to England - because I have a green card holder, then I can - I won't be able to get back to my husband here in America. And now my green card is stuck in the immigrant office here in the United States of America, and I'm waiting for my green card. So I don't know what's going to happen.
GROSS: OK. So you're married now. You married an Iranian-American who writes for Bloomberg News, Kambiz Foroohar, but you were reluctant to marry again. You still had that image of your mind of marriage as being very constricting of a women's freedom. So have you found a way to be married and not feel like it is limiting your freedom?
ALINEJAD: From the beginning, yeah. I've fought a lot to not get married and - because I hated to, you know, lose my freedom and lose my love because I thought marriage is going to kill the love - the good, you know, emotion and feeling that I had in my heart. But now I have to say that I was totally wrong because Kambiz was an ally for me. In all my life - in all my fight, you know, I have been away from my family for nine years and getting attacked by the government every day, and he was there for me.
I remember that my brother told my husband that, are you sure you want to marry Masih? Because she's like a bomb everyday that - you cannot control her. And (laughter) he told my brother, no, she's more than that. She's more than a, you know, bomb because it's - she's out of control. But the thing is - I remember that when the rape - the fake rape story was on Iranian TV - when I was crying, he called me. And he said the thing exactly my son said. He said that you won the battle and be strong because the government now - you know, they failed.
GROSS: Are you still getting death threats?
ALINEJAD: I'm still getting a lot of death threats. Like, one known Basij, who was actually on New York Times - New York Times made a profile about him. His name is Hamid Reza Ahmadabadi. He threatened me on a live interview on BBC Persian saying that I'm going to butcher you. And I have to say that I really don't have any fear.
The only thing that really, you know, kills me is this - that he has the same freedom, who is going to kill me, to live in my own country, but I am banned from entering the country. That kills me. And I never lose hope because I see a lot of young women, they're still there. They're facing the real threat. And they are still fighting and sending their videos to me. That is why I look at the future, and I never give up.
GROSS: So I would like to end with another song (laughter)...
ALINEJAD: Oh, my God.
GROSS: ...So OK, you've done a lot of reporting on which you've really risked your life to do it. But there's one story you describe in the book where you're talking to the Iranian president, I think it was Khatami. And...
ALINEJAD: Oh, yes.
GROSS: ...And you end - because it's illegal for a woman to sing solo unaccompanied, you sing to him to make a point. And you sang a pop song to him because you said, do you know that a lot of women listen to pop songs? Have you ever listened to a woman singing a pop song? And he's getting - it sounds like he's getting really nervous. So you sing him a pop song (laughter).
ALINEJAD: Yes, I did.
GROSS: Were you face-to-face with him when you did this? Or was this - were you already in England?
ALINEJAD: No. I was face-to-face with him inside Iran. And I told you, when I was in Iran, I was a troublemaker because, you know, when he says that singing solo is forbidden for women, I said, have you ever heard a woman singing? And I started to sing because I wanted him to understand that I'm not committing a crime. And then he got nervous, yeah. But at the end, you know, I published that video on my social media. It went viral.
GROSS: Can you sing for us what you sang for him?
ALINEJAD: Yes. It's a powerful song. It says that God, God, if you make me cry, then I will make you cry (laughter). (Singing in foreign language). That's it.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's great. You really do have a beautiful voice. What was his reaction - the president's reaction - when you sang to him and broke the law?
ALINEJAD: First, he got really nervous. And then, you know, he wanted me to stop, so he started to (clapping).
GROSS: But he didn't arrest you, right?
ALINEJAD: No, no because I was - I didn't do any...
GROSS: Because you were recording it (laughter).
ALINEJAD: Yeah, yeah. But I couldn't publish it when I was inside Iran because, you know, you're not allowed to ask about this kind of red lines.
GROSS: Oh, so you published that when you were living in exile in England?
ALINEJAD: Yes. In America - when I was in America, I published that.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Masih Alinejad, I want to thank you so much. And I wish you good luck and good health. Thank you.
ALINEJAD: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Masih Alinejad's new memoir is called "The Wind In My Hair: My Fight For Freedom In Modern Iran." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review Stephen McCauley's new novel. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW BIRD'S "I") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.