‘To Hell With The Headscarf!’

BOOK EXCERPT
Secret Notes From Iran: Diary Of An Undercover Journalist

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A woman playfully flouts the mandatory hijab law as her partner looks on, at Vakil Square in Shiraz, Iran (Photo: Ratna/ Secret Notes From Iran/ Leadstart Publishing)

Behind every powerful movement, there’s a powerful individual story. When it comes to the story of modern-day Iranian women’s battle against the hijab (traditionally known as rousari in Farsi), there’s a certain individual who kick-started the brave campaign to defy the Iranian clergy and persuade Iranian women to simply take their headscarves off. Her name is Masif Alinejad.

In 2014, Masih started a social media campaign called My Stealthy Freedom. The campaign basically invited women in Iran to get photographed with their headscarves off in public and then to share them on the social media handle.

Five years on, Masih’s novel initiative has snowballed into a hugely successful pan-Iran freedom movement. Hundreds of Iranian women now boldly post pictures of their tresses clicked in public in violation of Iranian laws.

Nadim Siraj interviewed Masih for his new book (Secret Notes from Iran/ Leadstart Publishing) and what she had to say on her movement and women’s rights in Iran turned out to extremely intriguing. Here’s a little slice of a chapter from my book that deals with women’s rights in Iran.

Excerpt:

The last revolution the Iranians have witnessed is no longer the one that took place in 1979. It’s the one going on right now, having begun in the summer of 2014. That year, an enterprising Iranian journalist and social activist called Masoumeh Alinejad-Ghomi, affectionately hailed as Masih Alinejad, kick-started a controversial social media campaign that turned into a nationwide rage overnight.

From New York City, where Masih has been based for a long time, she launched ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, a social media campaign across multiple handles. In the campaign, Masih calls upon all the women in Iran to publicly or privately click photographs of their uncovered tresses and openly post them on My Stealthy Freedom’s social media platforms.

What was the idea behind the defiant act? A scathing message from all the women in Iran to their conservative government: To hell with the mandatory headscarf; to hell with your regressive law.

Soon after the campaign was launched, the Facebook page of My Stealthy Freedom was photo-bombed with scores of selfies of young Iranian women posing with their hair exposed. In many of the photos, the women have tried to be inventive and creative, striking stylish poses while throwing their rousaris up in the air.

Most of the Iranian women who joined Masih’s social media revolution were youngsters. While many of the photos posted online are casual selfies, some are well-staged shoots. In less than three years, My Stealthy Freedom’s Facebook page garnered a following of over a million people — mostly young Iranians, mostly women, but also Iranian men who detest the regressive dress code.

Riding the power and sway of social media in an Iranian society that is as hooked onto the online world, like any other part of the world, Masih’s movement has seen #MyStealthyFreedom turn into one of the most commonly used hashtags on the Internet.

As it happens whenever and wherever the winds of change blow, the anti-headscarf movement has been deluged with criticism. Most of the flak has expectedly come from the Shia orthodoxy that dominates Iranian society. The government led by President Hassan Rouhani, and controlled by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, views the authenticity of the phenomenon with suspicion and has repeatedly questioned whether Masih’s efforts are indeed spontaneous or if the US government is fanning the fire.

It has not deterred the gritty Masih. Alongside the anti-headscarf movement, she runs another similar campaign, known as ‘White Wednesdays’. The idea behind this initiative is to tell the Iranian government that it needs to stop dictating the lives of ordinary women. The Iranian government repeatedly calls upon women to dress modestly whenever they are outdoors. In defiance, White Wednesdays involves women getting decked up in attractive, white dresses and posting selfies on the movement’s Facebook page.

It was not possible for me to catch up with Masih during my Iran trip as she lives in New York and is unlikely to be able to ever set foot on her native country’s soil, at least not as long as the Shia orthodoxy is in charge. So I worked out a long-distance interview with the young and chirpy revolutionary (see following chapter).

Needless to say, for the many women in Iran who participated in the anti-establishment campaigns, it was not a cakewalk. Scores who championed Masih’s cause have been arrested by the cops. Many still languish in jails all over Iran.

The pitched battle between the defiant Iranian women and the rigid government peaked in December 2017, when simmering tensions turned into full-scale protests that spilled out onto the streets of all the major cities. The hyperactivity was not just restricted to Tehran, traditionally referred to as the protest hub of Iran. A lot of global attention focused on Enqelab Street in central Tehran. Right through December 2017, when multi-agenda protests (against income inequality, unemployment and economic downturn), raged across Iran, Enqelab Street was on primetime news as the Tehrani cops conducted a brutal crackdown on protestors.

Countless women were picked up by the cops for taking selfies with their rousaris off. When the global press, especially the Western media, started giving the clampdown much-needed coverage, the Iranian government began to soften its stand, freeing many of the female prisoners. But not all and Iran-based activists are constantly pursuing their release.

The spectacular challenge the women threw at the government during the tumultuous times of December 2017, caused media commentators to term it ‘Girls of Revolution Street’. In fact, Masih’s twin drives against the dress code are not the only movements that have set social media afire. A number of other initiatives have been sparked as well. LGBT campaigners in Iran opened a Facebook page, My Stealthy Homosexual Freedom, sharing sarcastic posts and photos of faces covered in rainbow flags.

In 2016, a group of Iranian men started a ‘Men in Headscarves’ online campaign, where they expressed their thoughts on the anti-headscarf drive and posted tongue-in-cheek selfies by wearing rousaris themselves.

Not all social media campaigns are bashing the government. There are a few that are going against the tide and supporting the Ali Khamenei regime, although they haven’t made much of an impact. One is an online effort called ‘Beautiful Headscarf, My Right, My Choice, My Life’. The participants uphold and celebrate the government’s stand on the mandatory rousari and call My Stealthy Freedom a cultural war on Iran.

End of excerpt.

You will get the comprehensive story of the simmering clash between gritty Persian women and the obstinate Iranian clergy in the book Secret Notes from Iran (Leadstart Publishing/ Platinum Press).

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