‘My Hair Was a Hostage,’ Says Iranian Hijab Activist

 

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist, human-rights activist, social-media change-maker and “owner of a glorious head of hair that would be criminal to cover,” noted Tina Brown, who interviewed Alinejad in front of a packed audience Thursday at Brown’s seventh annual Women in the World Summit in New York City. And it was that last reference, to the covering of hair, that’s been at the heart of the activist’s rise to prominence around the globe.

 

From infancy into her early adulthood, Alinejad, along with all women and girls, was forced to wear a hijab (head scarf), as part of the laws put into place by the 1979 Iranian revolution — with punishments for going scarf-free, to this day, including lashings.

Despite growing up in a conservative, rural area, Alinejad grew up to become a rabble-rousing activist, moving to London in 2007 to study communications and work as a journalist. By 2009 she was letting her head be exposed in public, and began living in exile there, later moving to her current home, Brooklyn. In 2014 she kicked off My Stealthy Freedom, posting a moving photo of herself running through trees that were bursting with blossoms.

“I was enjoying the wind through my hair,” she explained to the audience Thursday. “Maybe it’s nonsense to you, but to us, it means a lot… And every time I feel the wind through my hair it reminds me of the time my hair was a hostage at the hands of the Iranian government. That was the caption,” Alinejad explained of the photo she posted — which became a watershed moment for her online revolution.

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“If you share it with me, then we are not going to be stealthy anymore. We are not going to be having our freedom in secret,” she said was the idea behind the Facebook page. “I was bombarded with pictures. There are a lot of brave women inside Iran, and they wanted to say ‘no’ to compulsory hijab.”

In a matter of days, My Stealthy Freedom became a social-media phenomenon in Iran and around the world, drawing more than 970,000 fans to this date, when photos continued to pour in.

All that exposure made Brown ask Alinejad, “Do you fear sometimes these are going to get them into trouble when you post them on My Stealthy Freedom?” But the activist said she only saw the empowering side of such moves.

“Being a woman in Iran means you live in a dangerous situation. You live with fear, every day, when you want to go out,” she explained. “According to the police of Iran, 3.6 million women were warned and stopped by morality police in the street within a year. And 40,000 cars were confiscated. Why? Because the women drivers did not have a proper hijab. … So these women, who were in Iran and were putting themselves in danger by saying no to forced hijab, they didn’t send their pictures to me, but they were at risk. For me, just giving them a voice means a lot.”

French prime minister’s support for ban on hijab triggers controversy

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has called for a ban on Islamic headscarves at universities, sparking a controversy in the government.

In an interview with the French newspaper Libération on Tuesday, the premier said that “we should do it, but there are rules in the (French) constitution which make such a ban difficult,” adding that government and university authorities should then be uncompromising on the rules of secularism in higher education.

Valls also shocked France’s Muslim community by claiming that a “majority of French citizens” think that Islam is incompatible with the values of the French Republic.

Premier’s controversial comments, however, received opposing responses from his center-left government.

“There is no need for a law on the headscarf at university,” said Thierry Mandon, the higher education minister, adding that students are adults, and hence they “have every right to wear a headscarf. The headscarf is not banned in French society.”

Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem also said she was “against any legal ban” on headscarves at state universities. “Our universities also have a lot of foreign students. Are we going to ban them access because in their culture there’s a certain type of clothing?” she said, adding that university students are young adults with freedom of conscience and religious liberty.

Right-wing politicians, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy, have in the past suggested that the Islamic hijab should be banned in higher education institutions. But, university authorities insist students should be free to do as they please and that any such prohibition would be illegal.

France has some of the strictest laws in Europe on the wearing of Islamic veils in public. In 2004, it made the hijab ban into a broad law which also covers schoolchildren and even parents who want to accompany class outings. The ban, which views hijab as a “conspicuous” religious symbol, has enraged Franc’s Muslim community, which is the largest in Europe.

In 2011, the then-conservative French government also banned the niqab (full-face veil) in public.