Masih Alinejad, The Wind in My Hair:
My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran (Little, Brown & Co.,)
Masih Alinejad, an Iranian national now living in Brooklyn, is recognized internationally as an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and human rights. She is best known for supporting Iranian women’s right to decide for themselves whether they wish to wear the hijab, the veil covering a women’s hair that is mandatory attire for women and girls as young as seven in contemporary Iran. She has amassed an impressive string of awards, including the United Nation’s International Women’s Rights Award, the Association for International Broadcasting’s Media Excellence Award, and the Swiss Freethinker Association’s Freethinker Prize.
The title of Masih’s autobiography/memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, captures her objective for herself and for women who wear the hijab not by choice: all women should have a right to feel the wind in their hair, if that’s what they desire. From an early age, Masih explains, she looked at her hair as “part of my identity, but you couldn’t see it. When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf” (p.30). Before challenging the compulsory hijab, Masih was an investigative journalist in Iran, exposing corruption within the most powerful spheres of the country’s political elite.
Masih was born in 1976, three years prior to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, ending nearly two millennia of rule by Persian kings. She describes herself as a child of that revolution, one who has “lived nearly all my life under its shadow. My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties” (p.23). The Shah had reformed Sharia law to allow women many basic rights, with the hijab being largely a matter of personal choice. But the Shah’s reforms were reversed after the revolution and the state extended increasing control over women’s lives, including the compulsory hijab. The changes “didn’t happen overnight,” Masih writes, and Iranian women “resisted and put up a fight, especially over the issue of compulsory hijab, which set the tone for how women’s rights would shape up” (p.29).
Through a Facebook page that she established while in exile, entitled “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih provided a platform for widespread resistance to the compulsory hijab. On a whim, she posted a picture of herself with no hair covering and cherry blossoms in the background. Exalting in how free she felt, she says she was no longer a “hostage,” a loaded word in Iran. “That simple photograph and message changed my life” (p.308). Critics complained that she was exploiting a freedom available to her only because she was not in Iran. Even her reform-minded friends back in Iran thought this was the wrong fight to pick. To many , the hajib was at best a minor irritant in a country where so many things were wrong.
True enough, Masih responded, but she was sure that, given “half a chance, millions of Iranians would remove their hijab, especially in the privacy of their own cars” and that “every Iranian woman had picture like this, taken in private moments, alone or with friends” (p.311-12). Even though they could be arrested for showing themselves without covered hair, Iranian women proved eager to show they were “free, powerful, and not ashamed of their bodies” (p.315). In numbers that astounded her, Iranian women posted photos capturing the “guilty pleasure of breaking unjust rules that allow us a modicum of dignity” (p.313). Her campaign against the compulsory hijab attracted the attention of super-executive Sheryl Sandberg, who encouraged her to write this memoir.
Masih traveled an improbable path to international fame. She was born and spent her early years in a dirt-poor rural village in northern Iran, Ghomikola, population 650 — “as far away from the country’s elites as possible,” she notes (p.9). Parents raising children in this traditional Shiite Muslim village hoped above all that their children would conduct t themselves with honor and avoid bringing shame to their families. Young Masih, mischievous and rebellious, fell well short of these overriding parental expectations. She was expelled from her high school after stealing books from a local bookstore and incurred a jail sentence for the seditious activity of organizing a book club of high school age students. She found herself pregnant without being married, and gave birth to a son after entering into a hurried if not quite arranged marriage. When the marriage floundered shortly thereafter, she divorced and lost custody of her son.
But divorced and without her son, Masih almost miraculously landed a job as a journalist with a reform-oriented newspaper in Iran, where her professional career took off. Tensions surrounding the controverted 2009 re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad forced Masih into exile, first in the United Kingdom, then in the United States. In exile, she regained custody of her son, completed a university degree, met the man to whom she is presently married, and undertook her campaign against the compulsory hijab.
Masih’s effervescent personality shines through all phases of her memoir. She has an audacious streak that often borders on recklessness. She is frequently absent-minded and disorganized. She has difficulty wearing matching sox, and is always losing apartment and car keys. Yet, she has an uncanny ability to concentrate when the moment requires intense concentration. In her frequent face offs with authority figures, among them the omnipresent religious and security police in Iran, along with ayatollahs and political leaders, almost always male, she is breathtakingly quick on her feet. Her sharp responses to authorities are often leavened with irony that borders on wisecracking. She is someone most of us would like to know.
Masih’s memoir can be broken into three portions: 1) her youth and early adulthood, including her imprisonment, pregnancy and divorce; 2) her years as an investigative reporter in Iran; and 3) her exile years, when she achieved international stardom. Surprisingly, the last portion, detailing her most highly visible accomplishments, is the least engrossing; it seems disjointed and scattershot, as if written hurriedly to meet a publication deadline. But the first two sections, charting her unlikely pathway to stardom, make for engrossing and often compelling reading.
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Masih was the youngest of six children; all slept in the same room. Their house lacked indoor plumbing, a kitchen and a place to bathe or shower (but did include a television). The family grew most of its own food. Despite grinding poverty, Masih seemed to have had a happy childhood. She loved to climb trees and pick pears and walnuts. Her family spoke a local dialect and Masih didn’t learn to speak Persian until she went to school.
Masih’s parents were religiously observant Shiite Muslims, a trait that they somehow failed to pass to their youngest daughter. Neither was formally educated, but both believed in education for their children. They wanted their daughters to complete high school before they married, whereas many Ghomikola families saw no advantage to educating girls. Masih’ s father, AghaJan, was a peddler who sold fruits and vegetables. He was a fervent believer in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. His highly traditional views of appropriate roles for girls and young women placed him increasingly at odds with his youngest daughter. Masih found less and less to talk about with her father as a teenager and, in her adult life, the two stopped communication altogether.
Masih experienced no such break with her mother, Zarrin. Functionally illiterate and barely five feet tall, Zarrin married AghaJan when she was 14. But she had skills as a tailor and worked on clothes for people in the village, sometimes offering sewing classes. It was unusual in Ghomikola for a married woman to earn her own money, rather than being entirely dependent upon her husband. Her mother was also the source of a decidedly non-traditional expression that guided Masih throughout her adult life: “If they lock the front door, go in through the back door. If the doors are barred, go through the windows. If they shutter the windows, climb through the chimney. Never let them lock you out. Always try to get in” (p.156). Yet, as much as Masih loved and respected her mother, she seemed to know from an early age that she wanted a different life for herself. “For Mother, family and reputations had special meanings that were lost on me. Her days were predictable, while I wanted mine to be full of surprises” (p.78).
Thanks to her mother’s intervention with local school authorities, Masih was reassigned to another high school when she was apprehended stealing books from a local bookstore, which she rationalized as necessary to feed a voracious reading habit in a family that could not afford to buy books. At her new school, Masih and a classmate started a book club that featured leftist literature about human rights, freedom and the meaning of democracy. The group also drafted and distributed an underground pamphlet advocating freedom for political prisoners, activities considered seditious in Iran. The group included a young man, Reza, who seemed interested in Masih, telling her that he was writing poetry for her.
Although Reza turned out to be Masih’s first romantic interest, the romance was placed on hold when first Reza, then Masih, were arrested and sent to prison for anti-revolutionary activities. While in prison, Masih learned that she was pregnant with Reza’s child. After appearing in a “Revolutionary Court, ” with secret proceedings and no right to a lawyer, Masih received a five-year sentence, suspended on condition of what amounted to “good behavior.” But she did not graduate from high school and still had to deal with her pregnancy.
“I had dreams of traveling and exploring the world,” Masih writes, “and now before I had even left Ghomikola I was trapped. My destiny was already set. . . I had to explain away another mark of shame to my parents – I was pregnant before being properly married” (p.100). Abortion proved not to be an option and she bore the child she carried, her son Pouyan, who in different ways remains part of his mother’s story for the rest of the memoir. Although she was not ready for being either a wife or a mother, Masih married Reza. It was not the usual sequence in Ghomikola, where “very few women get pregnant before their wedding night . . . I was bringing dishonor to my family” (p.107).
With Reza unable to find a job, the couple set out for Tehran. Masih worked briefly as a photographer while Reza wrote poetry. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Reza returned to their apartment one day to announce that he was in love with another woman, whom he wanted to marry. He found their marriage too confining for his poetic ambitions and needed a divorce – he couldn’t write and she was holding him back. “Once again, I had notched a family first,” Masih writes despondently: “The first woman in our family to be arrested, the first to be jailed, and the first to be pregnant before her wedding. I would now be the first in all of Ghomikola to be divorced. It didn’t matter that Reza was leaving me; everyone would think that it was somehow my fault” (p.134).
Masih had no chance of retaining custody of the couple’s son under Iranian law. AghaJan urged her to return to Ghomikola where he would help her find a new husband, leading her to the realization that divorced women in Iran have “no identity of their own. My father was not unique; he was a reflection of Iranian culture. In many villages and small cities, there is an expectation that a divorced woman should sit at home and wait for her next husband” (p.144). As she turned 24, Masih’s short marriage was over, she had lost custody of her son and she had a prison record but no high school diploma. Yet, she says she “blossomed” after her divorce and loss of custody. “It was painful,” she writes, “but I was suddenly free to grow and be myself. I wasn’t looking for new directions in my life, but I had little choice. The hardships I went through forged me” (p.143).
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By sheer audacity, Masih landed an interview with Hambastegi, a daily paper associated with reform politics. She volunteered to work without pay at the outset, to see how it worked out. She was assigned to cover Iran’s parliament, the Majlis. She memorized the phone numbers of relevant parliamentarians and called them at all times of day or night, playing up her status as a neophyte woman reporter. She knew the parliamentarians’ personal histories, had a loud voice, and understood how male politicians “can be relied upon to be patronizing to women,” thereby providing her with “great quotes” (p.157). Iran’s conservative newspapers referred to her as “the Ugly Duckling,” which she considered a badge of honor.
In her most sensational scoop, using carefully cultivated sources – shades here of Watergate and “Deep Throat” – Masih exposed how lawmakers routinely lined their pockets with secret bonus payments above and beyond their salaries. Through tough talk and more than a little bluffing –Masih says she became a master of the art of bluffing — she extracted a pay stub from a deputy that showed the equivalent of about $1,100 US for “consideration of Deputies’ Expenses.” Suddenly, she had hard evidence of a slush fund to make undeclared payments to the deputies. “There’d be no going back,” she writes. “I would be marked, but the story was worth it. It was for moments like that that I had rebelled against my family and endured all sorts of hardships. I wasn’t naïve. I knew there’d be a price to pay later” (p.195). Conservative newspapers claimed she had stolen the pay stub, and some indicated that she had obtained it through “flirting.”
Masih “loved being a Majlis reporter . . . [H]olding politicians accountable and exposing their lies were all part of a day’s work,” she writes. As disorganized as she was in her private life, when it came to covering politics, it was “as if a switch had been turned on” (p.190). Not surprisingly, Masih became persona non grata at Parliament and in 2005 achieved another first: the first journalist to be expelled from the Majlis. But her expulsion sparked a latent interest in issues particular to women. “Feminism was taboo in Iran,” she explains. “As a parliamentary journalist, I couldn’t risk being seen to be involved in feminism and women’s rights activism. To be honest, I didn’t have the time; nor did I want to risk another black mark against my name” (p.211).
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Masih had vigorously opposed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his first election to the Iranian presidency in 2005, in an election probably abetted by voter fraud. As the 2009 elections approached, Masih, like many younger Iranians, thought the country was poised to elect a genuine reform candidate. But the election resulted in Ahmadinejad being declared the winner, again amidst credible allegations of voter fraud, precipitating massive post-election demonstrations in June 2009 and a savage crackdown. Masih was advised to leave Iran for her own safety, and to this day has not returned.
She landed in Britain, where she pursued a degree in communications at Oxford Brooke University, and regained custody of her son, who was then a teenager. She began producing documentaries focusing on the families of victims killed in the post-election crackdown. She also pursued a quixotic idea to interview newly elected American president Barack Obama, and surprised herself by how close she came to being granted an interview. She received a visa to enter the United States, but in the aftermath of the contested 2009 Iranian presidential election, the White House decided that strategically the timing for her interview was not right. While in the United States, Masih made the acquaintance of an Iranian-American journalist for Bloomberg News, Kambiz Foroohar, who became an increasing presence in her life. From the time of their initial meeting, the unflappable Kambiz served as an invaluable check on Masih’s enthusiasm and her tendency to get too far out in front of herself. The couple married in 2014.
After Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg mentioned Masih’s “My Stealthy Freedom” page at the “Most Powerful Women Summit,” an event sponsored by Fortune magazine, she and Masih exchanged emails. Sandberg then invited Masih to Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. During the visit, Sandberg suggested to Masih that she write a book about her life’s experiences for English-language readers (she had already published a handful of works in Persian). While in the United States, as a follow up to “My Stealthy Freedom,” Masih also established #WhiteWednesday, which encourages Iranian men and women to wear white on Wednesdays to protest against the compulsory hijab. She has tried, without much success, to convince high-level women visitors to Iran not to cover their hair. Almost all, to Masih’s dismay, contend that they need to show sensitivity to local customs.
In the summer of 2016, Masih came out firmly against the ban in some French towns of the burkini, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women. “The police in France were behaving just like the morality police in Iran,” (p.367), she writes. Both had “problems with choices made by women, and both acted as if women’s bodies were the territory of lawmakers and law enforcement, who alone knew what was best” (p.367). But she nonetheless found it more than ironic that Iran, which denies its own women the freedom to choose, called on France to “respect the human rights of Muslims who chose to dress in Islamic fashion” (p.367).
Masih presently works today for the Voice of America’s Persian Service. Recently, her brother and two siblings of her first husband were arrested, and even her mother was called in for questioning by security officials, all part of what Masih considers an effort to intimidate her into silence from abroad. Like Masih’s memoir itself, this recent heavy-handedness constitutes a reminder of how little has changed since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran remains a repressive religious dictatorship, with few secular spaces and no tolerance for notions like due process and the rule of law. The place of women is still determined by, as Masih puts it, laws “devised by misogynists who find guidance and precedent in the seventh century” (p.141)..
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Assiduous readers of this blog will see many resemblances between Masih Alinejad and Manal al-Sherif, the Saudi Arabian woman of about the same age who wrote a memoir about her championing the cause of women driving in her native land, reviewed here in October 2017 (that review also included a work by Sherin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer who was the first Iranian and first Muslim woman to win a Nobel Prize; Ebadi makes brief appearances in Masih’s memoir). Notwithstanding the geopolitical and religious rivalries that divide their two countries, it is striking how similar the two women’s stories are. Each mobilized Facebook and other social media to launch a campaign designed to eliminate a state-imposed obstacle to women’s rights. Each endured a jail sentence. The personal stories of the two women also align. Each was raised in poverty by uneducated parents who nonetheless valued education for their children. After unsuccessful early marriages in countries where the husband-wife relationship is far from equal, both became divorced mothers of young sons. Each pursued a career and advanced study after divorce, and both now appear to be happily married. While both continue to be active in issues involving women’s rights and human rights in their native countries, each must do so from afar, with al-Sherif now living in Australia. How I’d love to put these two women in the same room together, then assume a fly-on-the-wall posture as they exchange war stories.
Saudi Arabia recently lifted its ban on women driving, while the hijab remains obligatory attire in today’s turbulent Iran. But anyone reading this memoir will come away convinced that, at a minimum, no one should ever underestimate what Masih Alinejad is capable of achieving, for herself and for her country.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 29, 2019