Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of a piece published in the current issue of National Review.
‘The first thing you have to know about her is that she had wonderful hair — and she cared a lot about it.” I once heard Paul Johnson, the British historian and journalist, say this about Margaret Thatcher. He knew her well. He was tongue-in-cheek when he said “first thing.” Obviously, there were more important things to know about Thatcher. Still, Johnson had a point about the lady’s hair.
Sitting down with Masih Alinejad, I ask her, almost immediately, about her hair. It is wild, woolly, plenteous, and wonderful. This is not merely a matter of style: Hair, for Alinejad, and millions of other women, is a matter of freedom, democracy, and human rights. In Iran, Alinejad had to cover her hair, and it is very difficult hair to cover — it has a mind of its own. Alinejad kicked against this requirement. And when she wrote her autobiography, in exile, she called it “The Wind in My Hair.”
She has been out of Iran since 2009, yet she still has dreams: She dreams that she is walking somewhere in Iran, sans hijab, and panics. What will she do? What will happen to her if a police agent sees her? When she wrote about this, online, many other Iranian women wrote her to say, “I have the same dream.”
Masih Alinejad is an Iranian-American journalist and activist. She hosts a show called “Tablet,” via the Persian Service of the Voice of America. She also has a very large social-media presence: involving about 7 million followers, more than Iran’s “supreme leader” has, she notes. Last summer, Alinejad made worldwide news for a nasty reason: She was the target of a kidnapping plot by the Iranian regime.
Never before had the regime tried to kidnap a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil. Think of the brazenness of that. Think of how this lady must have gotten under their skin.
I have met her in Miami at the Oslo Freedom Forum, in a practice room of the New World Center, a concert hall. It is a small, airless, windowless room. “I’m sorry that it looks so much like an interrogation room,” I say to Masih — she saw plenty of those in Iran. “But I promise this will be friendly.” “Oh, no worries,” she says, gaily. She is a blithe spirit, this brave woman.
Outside the room is her security agent: a woman from Jamaica, wearing a hijab. Masih relates to me an exchange they had, when they met.
Masih: “Do you know why you’re protecting me? The regime tried to kidnap me in New York — but do you know why they did that?”
Agent: “I Googled a little bit about you, and I know that you’re a badass.”
Masih: “Yes, but the main thing is that I’m fighting against compulsory hijab. And here you are, wearing a hijab, trying to protect me from the regime.”
“This was a beautiful moment,” Masih tells me. She thinks that women ought to be able to decide for themselves whether to wear a hijab. In 1936, under Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran banned hijab-wearing. The next shah, Mohammad Reza, relaxed this law. In 1983, under Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran required hijab-wearing. Those in disobedience would receive 74 lashes. Masih Alinejad is for freedom of choice in the matter.
She was born in January 1976, three years before the triumph of Khomeini’s revolution. Her family lived in a tiny village, Ghomikola, in the north of Iran. They spoke the Mazani dialect. They were poor, like most everyone else. Masih’s extended family reflected Iran itself: Some were for the revolution (including her father), some were against.
“I was always a scandal in the village,” says Masih. By some, she would be known as shahr-ashoob, meaning “troublemaker.” She was always questioning everything: especially the second-class status of girls and women. When she was kicked out of a room — which happened often — she would climb through a window, and get back in. Her mother would later tell people, “She was always poking beehives” — literally and figuratively.
Masih was expelled from high school. Thanks to the ingenuity of her mother — a canny and noble village woman — she was admitted to another. When she was 18, she joined some anti-regime students, issuing pamphlets and daubing slogans. She was arrested and imprisoned — a harrowing experience.
The details of her life are eye-popping, and can be found in her autobiography. I will say simply, in this brief piece, that she became a journalist, still poking beehives. In 2003, she asked the Iranian president, Mohammad Khatami, why he was not more enthusiastic about the Nobel Peace Prize given to Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human-rights lawyer. As a parliamentary reporter, Masih exposed corruption — which got her banned from covering parliament. In 2009, she was kicked out of the country altogether.
Masih never received a high-school diploma, thanks to her stint in prison. In exile, in England, she earned a degree from Oxford Brookes University. She has been in the United States since 2014.
In May of that year, she started a campaign, via Facebook: Azadi Yavashaki, or “My Stealthy Freedom.” In Iran, women would take pictures or make videos of themselves sans hijab — and send the images to Masih, who would post them. This is ongoing. A grandmother wrote, “I want my granddaughter to feel the wind in her hair before it turns gray.”
Masih Alinejad is a household name in Iran. “They threw me out of Iran, but they couldn’t take Iran from me. I’m there every day.” They kicked her out of the room, so to speak; she has found windows back in.
She remembers that, when she was a girl, in the village, she watched a mullah, on the family’s black-and-white TV. He was saying, “If you don’t cover your hair, you will be hanged by your hair, in hell.” And now, says Masih, “it’s the mullahs who are watching me.”
Growing up in Iran, she heard, “Ya Allah.” That’s what men say when they are approaching a house or room. It means, “Cover up or go behind a curtain, girls and women! Men are coming!” Now, says Masih, she feels almost as if she were saying, “Ya Allah. Here I come! Listen to what I have to say!”
The regime has called her a whore, a drug addict, a spy — an agent of the CIA, the Mossad, MI6, George Soros. They have also labeled her an “ugly duckling” (knowing full well that she is anything but).
Why do they hate her so? And why do they care so much about the hijab? This is a complicated, multifaceted question, but Masih gives it a shot. Women carry the mullahs’ ideology, she says. They wear it around their head. In their very persons, they advertise that “this is an Islamic republic.” If women go without a hijab, they are saying, “We don’t accept your ideology or your right to rule.” This is both insulting and threatening, to ruling men.
These men, says Masih, “hate women who are aware of their rights. They hate women who learn to say no.” The obedience — the submission — of women is central to the pride and power of “revolutionary” — of Islamist — men.
In the manner of dictatorships the world over, Iran’s dictatorship has retaliated against Masih’s family. Agents told her brother Ali to denounce and disown her. He refused. They arrested and imprisoned him. They told her mother to denounce and disown her daughter. She refused. “If you come back to my house,” she said, “I will set myself on fire and kill myself.”
Masih’s sister did, in fact, denounce and disown Masih — on national television, for 17 minutes. “You’re a journalist,” Masih tells me. “You know that, on television, 17 minutes is an eternity.”
Needless to say, Masih Alinejad bears great weight on her shoulders. Needless to say, her mental and emotional life is turbulent.
In July 2019, the Iranian government announced a new law: Anyone sending a video to Masih Alinejad would be jailed for up to ten years. This did not stop women from sending videos. No, “I’m getting bombarded every day by videos from women inside Iran,” says Masih.
She tells me about a woman named Saba, 20 years old, who did not receive ten years in prison: She received 24. Saba’s mother gave Masih some information: An interrogator said to Saba, “Say ‘Death to Masih Alinejad’ on camera, and you will be free.” Saba said, “Okay, I agree. Bring the camera.” Someone brought the camera — whereupon Saba said, “Death to dictatorship.”
There are many, many brave women in Iran, Masih tells me. “We have so many Rosa Parkses.” It upsets her when people call her brave — because the truly brave ones, she maintains, are in Iran, facing terrible consequences.
And yet: Masih now has to look over her shoulder, knowing that the regime is on her trail, even 6,000 miles away. She thought she was safe in America — in her Brooklyn home, with a garden. But this sense of security was shattered.
She is used to death threats. She gets them every day, along with threats of acid-in-the-face and other varieties of evil. It was different, though, when the FBI informed her that they had uncovered a kidnapping plot against her — a plot by the Iranian state. She had been watched very closely by Iranian agents. They planned to seize her and take her to Venezuela — an Iranian ally. From there, they would force her back to Iran.
Iranian agents had had experience in this: In 2019, they snared another journalist-activist abroad, who had found refuge in France: Ruhollah Zam. When they had him back in Iran, they executed him. Masih Alinejad has no doubt that they intend this for her, too.
In her usual lighthearted way, she jokes about being surrounded by police, here in America. When police surrounded her in Iran, during her years there, they meant her harm. Nowadays, the police exist to protect her — which amazes and gratifies Masih.
Meeting Franklin Roosevelt, said Churchill, was “like uncorking your first bottle of champagne.” Masih Alinejad has a similar quality. You will hardly ever meet a personality so effervescent. Yet she deals in darkness, day after day, hour after hour. One day, she took a call from Evin Prison — that place in Tehran whose name is synonymous with torture, rape, and murder. An inmate (a former journalist) had managed to reach her. Masih could hear screams in the background. Not many of us ever get a call like that.
“I have a duty, a responsibility,” she says — namely, to speak for people in her home country who can’t speak for themselves. To tell their stories and try to make the broader world aware of their existence. Not many are making better use of their exile. Or carrying it off with such flair and guts.
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