The protests in Iran over the hijab are being fueled by an exiled dissident.
Masih Alinejad has been putting out videos of Iranian women taking off their head scarves since 2014. When a 22-year-old died in the custody of the morality police last week, the whole country went crazy.
Women all over Iran are taking off their hijabs and setting them on fire as a way to show disrespect for the country’s gray-bearded theocrats. These dramatic scenes show how hard the people of Iran are trying to get free. The fact that Iran got to this point, at least in part, because of an unpaid 46-year-old mother working from an F.B.I. safehouse in New York City may be the most surprising thing about the Islamic Republic.
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian journalist who was forced into exile 13 years ago, has helped rally the country’s women. She has gained about ten million followers on her social media sites and has inspired them to throw away the hijab, the hair covering that every adult woman is required to wear.
Most of Alinejad’s fans live in Iran, which makes her one of the most influential people in that country. Since 2014, she has used a simple method that has had terrible results. She has asked Iranian women to record themselves breaking the rule about the hijab and send her the videos. Thousands of women have agreed, and Alinejad has posted videos and photos of them showing their hair on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The dictatorship in Iran blocks access to these sites, but many Iranians have gotten around this by using virtual private networks. Millions of people have been able to see how brave their fellow citizens are and how many people agree with them, which would not be possible in the stifling environment of modern Iran.
When protests broke out last week after the death of Mahsa Amini, who may have been beaten to death by the regime’s morality police, Alinejad saw that all the work he had put in over the years had finally paid off. In some of the amazing videos from Iran, women dance and do flips before throwing their hijabs onto bonfires. When I met Alinejad this week, she told me, “It’s happening, it’s really happening, and women are leading the way.” “The regime uses the hijab to control women and, through them, Iranian society as a whole.”
A scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., named Karim Sadjadpour, told me that as the legitimacy of the Iranian regime has fallen with the people, its leaders have clung to old ideas about women’s modesty to keep it in place. “The Islamic Republic still has three ideas that hold it together,” he told me. “Death to America, death to Israel, and death to the hijab. Masih knows that the hijab is the most fragile of the three pillars. Even Iran’s allies in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Caracas won’t stand up for it.”
Iran’s law says that any woman who has reached adulthood must cover her hair all the way down to the roots and wear clothes that don’t fit tightly. Women are often arrested by the morality police for not wearing a hijab or not wearing it correctly. Amini, whose death sparked the protests, was taken into custody because she allegedly let a few strands of hair fall out. Officials said that Amini, who was 22 years old, died in jail of a heart attack. Her father said to the BBC that Amini was in good health. “The government is lying,” he said.
When we met in New York, Alinejad was so excited that he couldn’t contain himself. Her wild, curly hair is a protest against the strict rules of the regime she is up against. “They hate me because I am getting women to fight against them,” she said, comparing the requirement to wear a hijab to the Berlin Wall. “If we get rid of it, the whole system will fall apart.”
The leaders of the regime are clearly afraid of Alinejad. In 2009, after getting into trouble for years as a newspaper reporter in Tehran, the government gave her a choice: stop making trouble or leave the country. She went to the United States for an interview, leaving her 12-year-old son Pouyan behind, because she thought it was too dangerous to go back. (Alinejad was no longer married, and her son moved to the UK with her after a few months.)
In 2014, she moved to New York and began to use social media to put pressure on the Iranian government from outside the country. In that year, she started her first campaign, called “My Stealthy Freedom.” In it, she asked women to record themselves doing harmless things that were against the rules, like taking off their hijabs. From there, she did even more. Sadjadpour said that for 30 years, Iranian women had to deal with humiliations every day without being able to do anything about it. “Today, they can record their harassers and abusers on video and send it to Masih, where it will be seen by millions of people.” The regime is also watching. In July 2021, the FBI caught an Iranian citizen in California who was planning to kidnap Alinejad and take her to Venezuela. From there, she would have been sent to Iran, where she would have likely been jailed or killed. A year later, F.B.I. agents caught a man with a Kalashnikov rifle outside her Brooklyn home. He was allegedly sent to kill her by the regime. Since she married Kambiz Foroohar, a former reporter for Bloomberg, in 2014, Alinejad and Foroohar have lived in F.B.I. safehouses. They have been forced to move seven times.
Alinejad is rarely seen in public these days. This week, she led a group of people to protest the arrival of Ebrahim Raisi, the president of Iran, at the United Nations. The next day, she met me at a busy corner coffee shop. The F.B.I. is so worried that Iranian agents are following her that they consider any encounter with another Iranian to be a cause for alarm. When a friendly Iranian recognized her inside, Alinejad greeted him warmly and then told me to leave. She said, “Let’s get out of here.”
Alinejad has also been targeted by the Iranian government from inside Iran. In 2018, her sister Mina disowned her on state TV. Alinejad told me that Mina is married to a Revolutionary Guard officer and is a true believer in the Revolution. Soon after, Ali, Alinjead’s brother, was arrested and put in jail for not helping the government kidnap her. The head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court, Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, said in 2019 that sending a video to Alinejad was a crime that could get you up to ten years in prison. On state-run TV shows, she is often called a traitor and an agent of other countries. She told me, “I have never taken money from a foreign government.” (The U.S. government pays for Voice of America, where Alinejad works, but she says her activism is separate from her job.)
When I sat down with Alinejad, she was distracted by the many videos and texts her supporters in Iran were sending her. She showed me her phone and scrolled through some of the day’s news: a video of a young girl lying in a pool of blood after apparently being shot, a video of police beating a protester, and a video of a woman throwing her hijab onto a fire.
The government is doing more to stop the protests, just like it did in 2017 and 2019 when similar demonstrations seemed to threaten its control. Independently checking reports from the ground has been hard because cell phone service and Internet access have been cut off or slowed down in many parts of the country. Videos show crowds chanting “Death to the Supreme Leader!” and “We don’t want an Islamic Republic!” as they face police and the Basij, the regime’s militiamen in plain clothes. Many journalists were among the hundreds of protesters who have been arrested. One video showed a crowd defacing a billboard of Qassem Suleimani, the famous commander of the Quds force and a national hero who was killed in a drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump in early 2020.
The scenes caught on video were similar to what I saw when I went to Iran not long after Suleimani was killed. From what I heard from the dozens of Iranians I talked to, the regime didn’t seem to have much legitimacy left. Almost all of the little support that there was seemed to come from people, like government workers, who got something directly from the regime. Militiamen from the Baji tribe stopped cars and people at random and searched them. These checkpoints were everywhere.
I asked Alinejad if she felt responsible for any of the deaths or for how many women were treated when they were beaten and put in jail. “It’s really hard,” she said. “I told so many women to do things that are sending them to jail. I can’t believe this is happening.” She started crying. Soon, though, she checked her phone again, and videos and messages were coming in. She was standing outside the coffee shop when she said, “I’m in charge of this movement.” “Women will bring down the government of Iran. “I think this.”