Her unruly mane of curls makes it hard to mistake Masih Alinejad for someone else. This feminist has become the face of resistance against the mandatory hijab (head covering) in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I first met her in Tehran in 2007, the day before she was forced into exile for denouncing the corruption of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government. Once she was safely out of the country, Alinejad never stopped talking. She used social media to exhort Iranian women to free themselves from the hijab and the discriminatory laws of what she calls a “gender apartheid regime.” More than 15 years later, she watched her dream come true – women burning their head coverings in Iran. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said from New York, her home for the last 10 years.
The personal cost has been enormous. The Iranian regime harassed Alinejad’s family and jailed her brother for two years. They arrested collaborators, hurled insults at her on state-owned television and even enacted a law punishing anyone who sends her videos with 10-year prison sentences. Last year, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested an armed man lurking near her home. Two years earlier, the FBI alerted her to a kidnapping plot by Iranian agents. Alinejad is confident that the hijab revolt will succeed in ending the political system that emerged from the 1979 revolution. “We want the West to isolate the Islamic Republic,” she said several times during our interview. Alinejad’s denunciation of the abuses of power in Iran recently won her a Casa Asia 2023 award for individuals and organizations who have contributed to promoting knowledge, dialogue and relations between Spain and the Asia-Pacific region. For Alinejad, the award is proof that the world is listening.
Question. The death of Mahsa Amini last September triggered an unexpected wave of protests by Iranian women against wearing the mandatory hijab. Many men joined the women, and the demonstrations extended their goal to include overthrowing the Islamic regime. Why now?
Answer. I have been receiving videos of police beating women for years. So when the police said they didn’t kill Mahsa, I didn’t believe it. Beating women is in the DNA of the morality police. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as seen in the level of outrage shown in the streets. The mandatory hijab is not trivial for Iranian women – it is the most visible symbol of female oppression. I have compared it to the Berlin Wall. If we tear down the wall, the Islamic Republic will disappear.
Q. Most of the protesters are young people. To what extent is there a generation gap?
A. The new generations want to live like the rest of the world’s youth. There is a huge gap between young Iranians and the backward clerics who are in power in Iran. The TikTok generation is against a barbaric regime that kills Iranians simply because they demand normal lives.
Q. The demonstrations have died down recently. Has the repression succeeded in silencing Iranians?
A. Every revolution goes through phases. The uprising continues but in different forms. In four months, 700 people have been killed, 19,000 imprisoned, 50 sentenced to death and five executed by hanging. Many young men have been blinded [by police gunfire]. And women are being raped in prison. The security forces do not allow people to gather in the streets and beat those who try. So other forms of protest are emerging. The relatives of people killed [in the crackdown] are turning funerals into demonstrations against the regime. Well-known female athletes are taking off their hijabs in sports competitions because they refuse to be an instrument of government propaganda. Well-known actresses are also taking off their hijabs and joining the people in the street to say no to the gender apartheid regime.
This is not a revolution that will triumph overnight; it will take time. The first wave has weakened the regime. The second wave is now developing. In the meantime, we must agree on the political values around which we can unite. And that’s where we are right now. We are working behind the scenes to unite the opposition, to form a common front that can meet with the leaders of democratic nations and ask them to isolate the Iranian regime. The Islamic Republic has taken everything from us except hope. I am confident that we will win this battle.
Q. The torch of protest still burns in Zahedan [Sistan and Baluchestan province in southeastern Iran]. How significant is the ethnic factor in the revolt?
A. The ethnic uprising is significant. Sistan and Baluchestan has demonstrations every Friday, which shows that the minorities will not stop their struggle against the Islamic Republic. The cities of Kurdistan are also enraged and will continue to protest against the regime. This is the first time in our history that we have seen this unity between Kurds, Baluchis, Arabs and Turks all over Iran. The Islamic Republic is afraid of unity between ethnic groups, between men and women, and between opponents inside and outside Iran. That unity is shaking the regime’s foundations.
Q. Workers, especially those in the oil sector, have not participated significantly in the demonstrations. Does it mean that the regime still has enough supporters?
A. I am convinced that the moment the workers see a clear signal from the West, they will join the protests. With the economic crisis and the corruption Iranians are suffering, it’s challenging to remain defiant. The West should support – morally and financially – people fighting for democracy instead of shaking hands with dictators and providing millions of dollars through nuclear pacts to the Revolutionary Guard and murderers in Iran. Many Iranians would like to declare a national strike. The West should develop mechanisms to help them.
Q. Can the uprising succeed without some part of the regime aligning itself with the protesters?
A. The army would join the protests if it saw specific signals from democratic countries: no negotiations with this regime, an end to the nuclear agreement, European countries designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization, G-7 leaders withdrawing their ambassadors from Tehran and expelling Iranian diplomats. The middle class, older generations, oil workers, laborers, teachers, and bus drivers would also join in if they saw a sign from the West.
Q. A few weeks ago, you met with political and business leaders in Davos [World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023]. What did you talk about? How can they help Iranians?
A. I met with [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron and asked him to recognize one of the world’s most progressive revolutions in Iran, led by women and supported by men. I asked him to call the uprising what it is – a revolution – and he did. I also told him and other leaders like the German Chancellor [Olaf Scholtz] that now is the time to isolate the Islamic Republic, just as they are isolating [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. The Iranian regime threatens its citizens, neighboring countries, and the whole world. In addition to sending drones to Putin to kill innocent civilians in Ukraine, it has turned hostage-taking, kidnappings and assassinations abroad into a perverse tool of diplomacy. Currently, Swedish, British, German, Italian, American and Spanish citizens are in Iranian jails to be used as bargaining chips in an eventual nuclear deal. I would like the G-7 to define a united stance toward Iran.
Q. Some people are backing Prince Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah, to lead the transition from a clerical to a secular government. Is he the right person, and will he have enough support inside Iran? Many years ago, he was not very popular.
A. As I mentioned earlier, we are working together on a united front. We will announce [a leader] when the time is right. At the moment, the talks are being held behind closed doors. But we are all working toward the same goal: the end of the Islamic Republic.
Q. You have just been awarded the Casa Asia 2023 Diversity Award for your work. What does the award mean to you?
A. I feel very grateful and honored. It means the Iranian regime cannot censor us and that the world is listening.
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