Three assassination attempts, exile, 10 million subscribers, and Stealthy Freedom — the story of Masih Alinejad, one of Iran’s protest leaders


Masih Alinejad. Photo: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Masih’s hair enters the room before she does. I am not sure what to call it exactly — a mane, a shock, a fireball — all three concepts are close, but not on point. Masih Alinejad’s hair is a completely separate entity. It’s as if it lives a life of its own, making up for years of being cooped up under a hijab. It was this hair that became the first step in Masih’s personal revolution, that has since grown into the countrywide movement My Stealthy Freedom and spilled onto the streets of Tehran.

Victim 1

Masih Alinejad currently lives in New York City. She has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, met leaders of the Western world, given lectures at US universities, spoken on global platforms, and amassed 10 million followers on social media. Not many people know, however, that even in the USA there have been three attempts on her life.

Her name is not mentioned in the indictment against four Iranian nationals that was filed with the US Department of Justice last year. For security reasons, this publicly available document refers to Masih as “Victim 1”.

The four accused were allegedly planning to kidnap her and bring her to Iran. Her movements were being tracked not by the Iranian intelligence agents themselves, but by American private investigators who were told that Masih had got into debt in Dubai and subsequently fled to the US.

Masih recalls that before this attempt, Iranian agents had tried to lure her into a third country (this trick, unfortunately, worked with Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, who had been living in France but was lured into Iraq under the pretence of providing exclusive information, from where he was taken by force to Iran and executed). On 31 July of last year, Azerbaijani-born Khalid Mekhdiyev was arrested next to Masih’s home carrying an AK-47 rifle.

Now, Masih has bodyguards. Nobody notices them — they’re professionals from the FBI. I would not have noticed them either if she had not pointed them out to me herself: a man and a woman, not standing out from the crowd, not cutting through it with confident moves, but noticing everything and always ready to come to her defence.

“The word ‘safe’ is too [much of a] luxury for those who dare to speak against Islamic ideology,” says Masih. “Salman Rushdie was going to give a talk at an event [where he was attacked] where the title of his talk was ‘America is a heaven’. I believe [that], and I’m really thankful to the FBI, to the law enforcement in America that they protect me,” the woman says.

“These two are protecting me, but why? This is America, this is all about freedom of expression. Why should I be protected by the FBI?

That actually shows you that America is not safe, the West is not safe, Europe is not safe. As long as the Islamic states are in power, as long as the Islamic Republic is in power, not only me — you won’t be safe. None of us are safe while the Islamic Republic, the Taliban, dictators are in power. But that doesn’t mean I’m scared. I do not fear for my life. But it is scary that, in the 21st century, two people should protect me [so that I can] speak up. I’m not a criminal, I’m not doing anything wrong!”

Even if you’ve never come into contact with Islamic ideology, you cannot feel safe in the West, as no one can give you a guarantee that you won’t be in the way of an Islamic fanatic or that you won’t end up in a plane with an explosive on board, Masih points out. No one is completely sure of their own safety.

A small homemade revolution

It all started during childhood. Masih was born in Qomi Kola, a small village in Iran’s Mazandaran Province. She was three years old when the Islamic Revolution triumphed.

However, smaller settlements held on to Islamic values even during the reign of the Shah. Tehran may have been the Paris of the Orient, but Mazandaran Province was always separated from the rest of the country, including geographically — by the Alborz mountain range. Shah Pahlavi had built railroads and highways through the mountains into Mazandaran — but century-old familial traditions cannot be destroyed by a railway.

Masih Alinejad’s family fit the picture — they were very religious and traditionalist. Women and girls had to wear a hijab even when at home. Masih recalls how, as a small girl, she would touch her hair while half-asleep, unconsciously checking if it was properly covered by a hijab.

It was at home that Masih started her first small revolution: when she was alone, she would take off the hijab — just for herself. She looked into the mirror, realizing that this is exactly how she wants to live, go outside, study — dressed in ordinary clothing. And one day, she took her Muslim garb off while in the street.

“From the age of seven, when you go to school you have to cover your hair. If you don’t, you won’t exist. You will be denied all your rights. It doesn’t matter if you are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, non-religious — you have to follow the dress code in Iran,” Masih says.

“This is how the doors are opened to go to school, to university, to get a job. […] Going to school, we had to wear the long, black [garb called] chadoor. I remember that I used to take it off on my way home from school, and one day my father saw me not wearing it in the street and he spit on me. I was shocked that he had spit on me in front of my friends. But that was the moment that I realized: now, I can say no to my father. Because I love you, but you love my dress code, you don’t love me.”

“So since the moment when I found the power to say no to my father, I never wore the chadoor. That’s why I say that if we want to launch a revolution against dictatorship, we, the women in the Middle East, have to launch it in our family, in our kitchen, in our community first, and either make the men our allies or kick them out.”

The Voice of Iran

Iranian women are not prohibited from getting a higher education. Who knows whom a woman will marry — maybe her husband will want an educated, working wife. And if the man wants his wife to sit at home, going out only to the market and never taking off her hijab — well, her diploma will lie around in a drawer somewhere. Masih’s diploma did not end up in the recesses of a drawer. In fact, it was her job that would later become the reason for her emigration.

Masih worked in the Hambastegi newspaper, the Iranian Labour News Agency, published columns in different media outlets. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the sixth president of Iran — translator’s note) came to power, immediately starting a fight against women’s hair in public, Masih wrote an exceptionally vitriolic column in which she, with false naiveté, inquired the new president how many jobs he had created, how many families he had saved from poverty and how many unjust court rulings he had reviewed. She asked him to divulge the secret of how he found so much spare time to fight women’s hair.

Masih also got involved in a corruption scandal. In 2005, the government reported that it had cut the salaries of its members. But Masih found out that officials had actually started earning several times more than they had before by way of “bonuses” for everything from religious holidays to “proper behaviour” and following traditions.

Masih was accused of stealing pay statements. When it turned out that she had received this information from a member of the Majlis (the Iranian Parliament — translator’s note), she was accused of defamation.

Her brother even went to the office where she was working to ask her boss not to fire her. Nonetheless, she lost the job. In 2007, having been completely banned from her profession, she was forced to leave: first to the UK, then to the USA, where she started working for the Persian Language Service of Voice of America.

“I was a student activist. They put me in jail because of spreading pamphlets. I was a parliamentary journalist and exposed corruption. They kicked me out.”

“I was a columnist for a newspaper. Because I criticised the government, they took my column away. They did everything to keep me silent. I had to make a decision: to stay in Iran and censor myself, respect the red lines, or leave Iran and be loud. I decided to leave Iran,” the woman says.

“At that moment, the government thought: if we kick her out, she’s going to be silent. But [...] I have a window. Every day, through that window I am in Iran. The window is my social media. I have more than 10 million followers. I’m not an actress, not a model. [These are] people who want me to be their voices. I have more followers on social media than the Ayatollahs, more than the leaders of Iran.”

“Women are sending videos to me, practicing their civil disobedience, taking off their hijab, walking unveiled. Mothers of those killed send videos to me. It means that the government can kick you out, censor you, kill you, but it cannot kill the idea. They cannot break the bond between me and my people in Iran. That’s why they created a new law — anyone who sends videos to Masih Alinejad will be charged with up to 10 years’ prison.

But that didn’t scare people. Women took to the streets and said they would rather go to prison for 10 years but send their videos to me. Dictators did everything to break me, but they failed. Now, it’s not about me. Millions of women who are more brave than me are challenging the dictators.”

“Three years ago, I gave a talk at Stanford University, and I said to the students: the next revolution will be led by women. Nobody took me seriously. But this is it now. I knew that women are fed up with religious dictatorship. That’s why I used a symbol — the forced hijab — to unify them.”


Stealthy Freedom and White Wednesdays

When Masih Alinejad left Iran, she had nothing but social media at her disposal. They were not as popular as now, but they were her only window into Iran. So she began writing on social media. First — on Twitter and Facebook, then on Instagram, once it appeared. But it was on Facebook that her most important campaign was launched.

In 2014, Masih posted a picture of herself, hair streaming in the wind, and asked Iranian women who were following her to send in similar pictures — without a hijab or any other veiling. Not in public places, of course, but wherever they wished and could be it at home or in the desert. Unexpectedly, the trend became viral. Masih founded a Facebook group called “My Stealthy Freedom”. It currently has over a million members.

Later on, she created the White Wednesdays movement, inviting women who were against compulsory hijab to take to the streets on Wednesdays wearing white headscarves. No slogans, signs, or demonstrations — simply a white headscarf as a symbol of protest. Then, she founded the#MenInHijab campaign, where men took photos of themselves wearing a hijab to show solidarity with the protesting women. On White Wednesdays, the men tied white ribbons onto their wrists.

Masih also wrote a book called The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran. It’s hard to imagine how wonderful it feels to walk around in the rain with your hair out, feeling the wind in your hair, for those who haven’t had to wear a chadoor for most of their lives, she says.

One time, she received a photograph of a beautiful older woman as part of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign. The woman wrote to Masih: “My hair turned grey without having ever felt the wind.” 

That was devastating to read, Masih tells me.

Hostage diplomacy

Masih’s brother Alireza spent two years in prison. Before the authorities came after him, however, they arrested 29 women from her home village and forced them to make a video appeal to Masih asking her to stop her activism because she was only making things worse for them. The youngest one of these women was only 19 years old, and Masih thought to herself if she should indeed stop her campaign if she was putting them in danger.

But then, the mother of the 19-year-old wrote to Masih: “Now, you have to be my voice. Freedom is not free, we have to pay a price.” Afterwards, Masih received a message from a woman whose son was killed during a protest. Masih reminded her that the woman could be imprisoned for 10 years for sending videos to her, but the woman answered: “I have already lost my son for freedom. Iran is like a jail for me already. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m inside the jail or outside. But I cannot keep silent.”

Then, they took Masih’s mother in for questioning. One night in 2019, they came after her brother Ali as well as Leila and Hadi, the siblings of her ex-husband Max Lotfi. Leila was taken to a Tehran prison and released after two weeks. Hadi was released after an interrogation but banned from leaving Babol, the town where he lived.

As for Ali Alinejad, he was sentenced to five years in prison for anti-government propaganda and released on parole in 2021 after spending two years behind bars. Shortly after his arrest, a video that he had made in advance was uploaded onto the Internet. In this video, he told Masih that their whole family was under great pressure and that he could be arrested at any moment, but asked his sister not to give up and continue spreading information about what was going on in Iran.

“When they put my brother in jail, I was totally broken. They have a hostage and they ask you to stop — what are you going to do? It’s a very difficult decision. Sometimes you even think that if you continue your work, then you’re betraying your brother. But [what will happen] if you stop being the voice of those being tortured, of those killed? 1,500 people have been killed, and their mothers come to me and want me to be their voice. So what should I choose? […] Keeping silent will be a betrayal to my bigger family, to the bigger goal, to freedom and democracy. So I have to let the government know that I won’t stop my work. I know they can hurt my brother, but there is no difference between my brother and those who got killed in the street. [...] In the bigger picture, you’re helping and fighting for your brother as well because you’re telling the oppressive regime that hostage diplomacy doesn’t work. Whereas if you obey them and say “OK, I’ll give up my fight, release my brother”, you’re actually putting millions of lives in danger because you’re sending the signal to the oppressors that hostage diplomacy works.”

The revolution of hope

Protests in Iran erupt every few years and are always ruthlessly crushed. But now, after student Mahsa Amini died in a Tehran prison after being arrested for wearing an “incorrect” hijab, the security forces will not be able to suppress the people’s ire — of this Masih Alinejad is sure.

“The government doesn’t respect its own law. According to the law in Iran, people can take to the streets and protest as long as they don’t carry weapons. But the people’s only weapon is their mobile phone. […] Now, Iranian schoolgirls, from the age of 15-16, are not only going to prison — they’re getting killed. So far, reports say that 42 protesters killed in this uprising are children. But I’m sure the number is much higher than this. The regime cut off the Internet, so we don’t know the real number. [...] Nika [Shahkarami] was only 16 years old. You know what her crime was? She burned a small piece of cloth — her headscarf — in public. The government followed her, tortured her, and killed her, then they arrested the family members and brought them on TV to say that “the government didn’t kill my daughter, she just committed suicide”. Immediately [afterwards], the mother came out and said that the confession was forced. […] The more people they kill, the more anger it creates,” Masih says. And the men join the mothers, grandmothers, and sisters this time, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them, she adds.

“The government has only two options: to step back and get rid of the compulsory hijab, which is not going to happen because the compulsory hijab is the main pillar of the Islamic Republic [...]. Their other option is to kill people. By killing more people, they will make others more determined to take to the streets. Nowadays, I only rarely see people cry among the family members of those who got killed. People are angry, and that shows that even execution, torturing, imprisonment won’t stop them from fighting against the Islamic Republic.”

Masih does not talk of her second husband and their son — it’s too dangerous. After three assassination attempts, “Victim 1”, as the indictment sent to the US Department of Justice last year refers to her, prefers not to give names and addresses. We have got carried away with our conversation, and Masih says sorry to the guards. She’s constantly excusing herself to them, feeling that she is distracting them from more important work. Masih continues walking, and in a few minutes, I hear her say loudly to someone: “Women will make this revolution and win!”.

As for me, I sit down to read the recent news on My Stealthy Freedom’s website. Female student Ghazal Ranjkesh has been shot by the police and lost an eye. Another female student, Aylar Haghi, has been killed during a protest in Tabriz. Schoolgirl Asra Panahi has been shot while at school for refusing to sing a song praising the government. And at the same time — the women’s national basketball team are photographed without hijabs. Iranian football players refuse to sing their country’s national anthem during the World Cup. In Ishafan, male and female students march through the streets together in protest against segregation. Hijabs are burned at the burial of a woman killed in Amol during protests against the murder of Ghazaleh Chelabi. In the evenings, unveiled women can be seen dancing in the streets of Basht. What is this if not a revolution?

Oh, and another important thing. Sometimes Masih Alinejad does cover her head — with a dashing gavroche cap. Occasionally, she puts a flower in her hair. After all, hair is a symbol of freedom, she says, and freedom is always met with flowers.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.