From the age of seven, growing up in rural Iran, Masih Alinejad was forced to wear the hijab - even while she slept.
‘As a girl, I never had a clue about equality, about feminism - nothing - I just wanted the same freedoms as my brother Ali,’ she recalls.
So her subservience didn’t last long. At school, she fought against wearing the chador, a full-body cloth that leaves only the face exposed, and was expelled.
At 19, while pregnant, she was arrested, held in solitary confinement and repeatedly interrogated for taking part in student activism. As an adult, she has been forced into exile for refusing to fall in line as a political reporter. Her final ‘offence’ was daring to wear red shoes to parliament.
Now Masih, 41, is leading the charge of millions of women campaigning against compulsory hijab laws in Iran - and the regime cannot shut her up.
‘This small piece of cloth is the most visible symbol of oppression,’ Masih says, referring to the hijab in Iran, as she speaks to MailOnline from her current home in New York.
‘In 2014, before my campaign was launched, police announced 3.6 million women were sent to court for “inappropriate hijab”... 40,000 cars were impounded for inappropriate hijab,’ Masih states. Inappropriate hijab can be a headscarf that does not fully cover a woman’s hair or a hijab deemed to be the wrong colour.
Every day, she receives dozens of images and videos from women inside Iran who are resisting the veil, which she shares on her Instagram and My Stealthy Freedom Facebook page. And weekly, on a day she has coined 'White Wednesdays', Iranian men and women wear the colour white to support her campaign.
‘It started off with women sending photos of the back of their unveiled heads, then standing in hills and nature, then walking in public and then with their headscarf being waved on a stick,’ she says, explaining how women have grown bolder in their approach.
To understand Masih’s bravery, it pays to look at her background. She was born in a tiny village of just 650 people, called Ghomikola, in Mazandaran, northern Iran, to deeply conservative and religious parents. In her new book, The Wind In My Hair, she describes how money was always tight and her freedom was always restricted.
Masih wanted to climb trees and ride bikes like her older brother, Ali, but she was born in 1976, just two years before the Islamic Revolution overthrew 2,500 years of continuous Persian monarchy and stripped women of their freedom.
One of the first laws imposed by the new Islamic regime, was the introduction of compulsory hijab in 1983, meaning women must always wear a veil over their hair when they’re in public.
Forty years later, Masih is helping women in Iran to ‘take their bodies back’ after they were ‘held hostage by the Islamic Republic of Iran’. She has recruited an army of millions of social media followers to help fight her battle.
Masih was jailed at the age of 19. Not because she was unveiled but because she ‘became involved with student activists... we were all teenagers’.
It was in a tiny cell, after hours of interrogation, that she found out she was pregnant. Her fiancé, Reza, was also in jail having been arrested first. He had noticed Masih’s periods had stopped and told the guards she was pregnant in the hope it would aid her release.
‘We hadn’t had our official wedding party. Getting pregnant before getting married is not acceptable back then, 20 years ago, it was a scandal in my village,’ Masih says.
Sex education was non-existent in Iran. Even now, young people are forced to educate themselves about sex via social media. ‘I didn’t know that because my period had stopped it was a sign of getting pregnant…. An interrogator gave me a basket of apples and told me. I was shocked.’
Masih was eventually sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes. Her sentence was suspended for three years, and Masih went on to marry Reza and give birth to her son Pouyan. But instead of going on to live the traditional, reserved family life the judge had hoped for, Masih’s life was thrown into turmoil when Reza decided to divorce her. Iranian law meant it was his choice and he was also award custody of Pouyan, aged four.
Masih’s father was ashamed of the divorce and wanted her to move home to wait for another husband to come along. Instead, Masih began a career that has taken her from being a fledgling photographer to a parliamentary reporter, broadcaster and now internationally recognised women’s rights activist.
Her anti-compulsory hijab campaign began in 2014 when - having received threats to her life and fearing another arrest due to her journalistic work - Masih, aged 33, moved to the UK to study at Oxford Brookes University.
In her home, near Kew Gardens, she stepped out unveiled into a street lined with cherry blossom. Her partner, Kambiz, took a photo and Masih shared it on her Facebook page. The image, along with her message about how the same act would be illegal in Iran, went viral and began her My Stealthy Freedom Campaign.
The cause has grown and grown. One video, shared this week on Masih’s Instagram page, has already had over five million views at the time of writing. It shows men and women in the popular tourist city of Isfahan standing up against the morality police who are trying to arrest a young woman because they believed her hijab is inappropriate.
The caption reads: ‘The girl stood up to film them and police took her mobile away. But people supported her by chanting. “Give her mobile back, Leave her alone.” In the end, the police ran away.’
Scenes like this are taking place across the country thanks to Masih’s campaign.
‘The new generation of Iranian women will never ask the government for their rights they just take them. Women are told they can’t sing, but women are singing in Iran. They are told they can’t dance, but they are dancing. They are told they can’t show their, hair but they are doing it... this generation went beyond begging for their rights,’ Masih says.
She makes clear she is not against people who want to wear the hijab, she is simply against the law that gives women no choice. ‘Iran should be for both sides, people that love hijab like my mum and sister and people that hate it like me,’ she laughs.
Some critics question whether Masih is putting women in danger from authorities by sharing their images on social media.
It’s a question she once grappled with herself. ‘Because of my ‘White Wednesday’ campaign, the authorities announced they arrested 29 women... I was crying loudly in my house in New York and felt guilty,’ she says before explaining how messages from campaigners soon reassured her she was doing the right thing.
‘When people tell me I’m putting women in danger it’s nonsense because the Islamic Republic has put women in danger for 40 years,’ she says. ‘They are tired of being humiliated and living in fear.’
One brave campaigner, Shaparak Shajarizadeh, was arrested in February after waving her headscarf from a stick while standing on a traffic island in Tehran. Masih was relieved when, one week later, Shaparak, who is a mother to a nine-year-old son, told her she would not stop protesting forced hijab. ‘She told me “every Wednesday I feel useful”... she sent me a photo of herself unveiled in front of the prison after her release.’
‘These are the Rosa Parks of Iran. They want to be heard. I am here outside of Iran and can help…. Shima was told “your crime is working for Masih” but she told the interrogator “Masih is working for me”.’
Masih recounts a story of the time she went to the seaside fully clothed ‘not even in a burkini, proper clothes’. She went into the sea and was arrested simply for getting wet. ‘We were interrogated for a few hours about why we did it,’ she says incredulously. Police accused her of wanting to get men excited.
‘Every day you come out of school and they treat you like a criminal,’ she adds.
Fighting against the almighty Iranian regime, without weapons, may seem like an impossible struggle. But Masih, an eternal optimist, believes the battle is already won.
‘The government has guns and bullets, state TV and the media. Our people only have their mobile phones but we won the battle. People are breaking through the censorship through social media. You can now see the true face of Iran. No one can ignore us anymore… they can’t say hijab is our culture anymore.’
Masih believes there is a fear in the West about standing up against compulsory headscarf laws for fear of being deemed ‘Islamophobic’.
‘What makes you Islamophobic is keeping silent about injustices like Sharia law, when you see women suffer and you keep silent that is causing Islamophobia.’
Masih now lives with her second husband Kambiz in Brooklyn but she does not have a British, American or Iranian passport. Thanks to President Trump’s travel ban, this means she has not seen her 21-year-old son Pouyan - who is studying in England - for more than a year.
‘The travel ban hurts ordinary people like me. It affects students, tourists, and human rights activists,’ she says.
Masih is a woman who has endured a lot of pain in her life but it is only when talking about how much she misses Iran that she sounds tearful.
‘If I had the chance to be in my own country and have the same voice as I have in America, I would definitely go back because I miss my country…
‘But I was disrespected since the age of seven, expelled, jailed and never had the chance to be my true self there. Now I’ve seen my book published, I feel bad when I say Americas is not my home because I am respected here.’
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.