Masih Alinejad: ‘What made me different was that I took action’


Iranian activist-journalist Masih Alinejad reveals the importance of saying no to repressive regimes in her memoir

The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran by Masih Alinejad, Little, Brown and Company,| 400 pages

Her crime was dance. Eighteen-year-old Maedeh Hojabri was an Instagram celebrity with videos of her swaying and shimmying, pirouetting and pouting to Iranian and Western pop music, including Shakira and Justin Bieber. Her oomph quickly attracted thousands of likes and shares on social media. But then she was arrested by Iranian authorities. In July, a state-run TV programme showed her weeping and stating, in what was a “forced confession”, that the videos weren’t to attract attention, but for her followers—“I did not have any intention to encourage others doing the same.” She was released on bail later.

In the early 90s, Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad was arrested for being part of a political group in her high school. She was kept in a dank cell for days and forced to write her confessions over and over— who were her friends, how did the group come together, did she ever think about killing a leader. News of Hojabri’s arrest surfaced just weeks after Alinejad’s memoir The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown and Company; 400 pages; Rs1,932) was published, proving that when it came to women’s freedom, little had changed in Iran in over two decades.

“I was 19 when I gave that false confession in Iran. I saw Maedeh’s clip, and it took me back to that dark time when I was scared and miserable. The government and the situation of oppressing people, forcing them to give false confessions hasn’t changed. But what has changed is us,” says Alinejad, over a Skype conversation from her home in Brooklyn, New York. Shortly after Maedeh’s arrest, Alinejad started a hashtag on Instagram, urging women to dance in her support. Soon, dozens of Iranian women were flooding social media with their dance videos, some within their homes, others in public parks and on the streets. The women’s rebellion embodied a key feature of Alinejad’s own journey, political and personal—the power of saying no.

Alinejad grew up in Ghomikola, a tiny village of 100 or so families in northern Iran. She was the youngest of six children, and also the most distinct looking—slight and dark-featured, her hair “coils of thick snarling curls”. In 1979, when she was just a toddler, the Islamic Revolution erupted, overthrowing years of rule by Persian kings. This spelled doom for women’s rights—compulsory hijab became the law, the value of a woman’s testimony became half of a man’s, and beaches, cinemas and other public spaces were segregated. Alinejad’s father—Aghjan—enlisted in the Basij, a paramilitary group created to protect the regime.

In the new regime, girls were expected to stay indoors and out of sight. While her brother Ali played for hours in the summer sun, she was told “girls can’t do that”. The women in the family had to wear head scarves at all times, even while asleep. But Alinejad was “never the obedient child”. At a school event where she was chosen to recite the Quran, she began by intoning a holy verse before switching to a love poem by the influential Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou. She challenged the religious teachers in school with questions on god’s existence and abandoned the chador, much to her father’s chagrin.

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