By Masih Alinejad
July 31, 2018
On Friday, my sister publicly disowned
me on prime-time Iranian television.
I can’t say this comes out of nowhere. Over
the past two decades — as a journalist critical of the regime, as an outspoken
feminist and ultimately a dissident living in exile in America — the Islamic
Republic has tried to intimidate me and my family, which still lives in the
poor village where I was raised in northern Iran.
As a journalist in Iran, I often got into
trouble exposing the regime’s mismanagement and corruption until, eventually,
my press pass was revoked. I was often threatened with arrest or worse for
writing articles critical of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately,
I was forced to flee my homeland in 2009.
But the threats I faced as a journalist
were nothing compared to the abuse and attacks that began after I began My
Stealthy Freedom in 2014, a campaign against Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.
I have remained out of reach of the regime,
but my family has taken the brunt. There has been financial pressure: threats
to revoke business permits and licenses, for example. Some relatives have been
threatened with firing until they proved their loyalty by offering secrets
about me. And, of course, the Intelligence Ministry regularly sends officers to
pay visits to my elderly parents. At one point they offered to arrange a
“family reunion” in Turkey. I can only imagine what they had in mind for me.
But exploiting my family on the Iranian
equivalent of “60 Minutes” was a new low. It was by far the most ferocious
attempt to shame me, intimidate me and break my spirit. Stalin would have been
Two interviewers, both men, sit facing my
older sister and her daughter, my niece. Both are wearing chadors. My sister
first makes the case that I am no longer myself — that somehow I’ve been
brainwashed into my activism and rejecting compulsory hijab.
“She knows what she’s doing isn’t right.
But I feel she’s no longer herself. If this was really her, then why are her
eyes always teary? Why isn’t she happy?” my sister asks rhetorically. She goes
on to say that I’ve “achieved nothing.” If I “had talent, she’d be able to
persuade my daughters and me.”
I’ve always respected my sister. I’ve never
tried to put pressure on her or on any members of my family. I want women to
have autonomy over their bodies, to be free to wear — or not wear — a head
More pain was to follow. In one of several
leading questions, one of the interviewers asks my sister and my niece: “What
happened that you decided to publicly disown her?”
“I’ve been silent for 10 years,” my sister
says. “Then I saw that she was challenging the Supreme Leader. Everyone who’s
familiar with me knows this. My red line is the Supreme Leader.”
Even as she was denouncing me and praising
the regime, I felt sympathy for my sister. As I watched her, I thought about
the reality of life for women and girls in the Islamic Republic: They face the
very shaming I was being subjected to if they publicly oppose compulsory hijab.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final
say over almost everything in Iran, including what airs on television has
previously dismissed the civil disobedience campaign against compulsory hijab
as “insignificant.” But this vile segment demonstrates that he’s apparently
changed his mind about the significance of our campaign. What’s more, the fact
that state TV is focused on my hair while ignoring the real story — the fact
that Iranians lack basic necessities, like water and electricity — makes it
even more stomach-turning.
In perhaps the most heartbreaking exchange
of the segment, the interviewers push my sister to say that my parents had
“They can’t believe Masih is walking around
naked in the streets,” she says of my parents.
The interviewer presses her: “Have your
parents disowned Masih?”
Her reply: “She’s broken their hearts.”
Hearing this made me almost physically ill.
The truth is that before the show aired, I
got a call from my mother — a tiny, illiterate woman who has the toughness that
comes from being abandoned at an early age by her own mother and married off at
14 years old. She was sobbing. The intelligence service had tried to pressure
her and my father to participate in the show. And the local Friday prayer
leader had called them out in public and urged them to cooperate. She refused —
a show of loyalty that I can never repay.
In the interview, my sister and niece
declare that they will “fight me.” Likewise, I am engaged in the fight of my
When I think about who I am fighting for,
all I need to do is watch the final moments of the show, in which my
great-nieces, 4 and 6 years old, are paraded in front of the cameras wearing
Seeing them takes me back to the time in my
life when I was forced to cover my hair, when I was told that my own body was
shameful and when I was almost punched in a parliamentary corridor by a cleric
because two strands of hair were peeking out from under my head scarf.
What the regime is doing to my family hurts
me deeply. But in the long run these personal attacks have always strengthened
me and the Iranian feminists who are my chosen family.
“I am prepared to give up my life for
hijab,” my beloved sister says.
I, too, would give up my life. I’d give it
up for women like her to live in freedom.
Masih Alinejad is the founder of My Stealthy Freedom and the author of
“The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran.”