Following an event at Georgetown University hosted by the Georgetown University Lecture Fund and the Georgetown University Arab Society, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Masih Alinejad, founder of the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom,” to discuss the state of journalism in Iran and how journalists, both inside the country and abroad, can raise awareness about the rights of Iranian women.
GJIA: Given the country’s strict censorship laws, do you feel that there is still room for meaningful journalism in Iran?
MA: There definitely is meaningful journalism in Iran. Many journalists are in fact rebelling against the government’s censorship of the press. If all of those journalists were to leave Iran like I did, we would have to say that journalism was dead. Journalists who work within Iran provide the most accurate news on the region; they visit the small, rural towns and the large, bustling cities. They cover the news by meeting people face to face. Journalists who work from outside a country are not able to access such information. Although Iranian journalists suffer from not having complete freedom of speech, journalism is still alive within the country.
GJIA: Are male and female journalists in Iran held to the same level of censorship?
MA: Being a female journalist is very tough. I have been told by members of Parliament (MP’s) that I am too loud and that they will not answer my questions unless I cover my hair. I don’t think my male colleagues are subject to these remarks. However, this is not to say that male journalists have an easy time reporting. Being a journalist of either gender in Iran is tough because criticizing the government is considered a crime. I do think that it is a bit tougher for female journalists because they have to follow additional rules that don’t necessarily apply to their male colleagues, but journalism in Iran is very difficult in general.
GJIA: How would you compare your original vision for your Facebook page, My Stealthy Freedom, to what it has become today?
MA: I have been very surprised by the reaction to My Stealthy Freedom. In the beginning, I just wanted to share my experiences with an audience. After I left Iran, I made a personal fan page, but it quickly became too focused on death, execution, and political prisoners. I really disliked how cheerless the page had become. I wanted to give my audience hope. I wanted to make them happy, so I posted a photo of myself without hijab (my head scarf). Soon after, I received comments from Iranian women expressing their envy of my freedom from compulsory hijab. In response, I published another photo of myself without hijab, this time one that had been taken inside of Iran.
Soon after, I was bombarded with pictures from Iranian women hoping to share their stories with me. I knew these women needed a platform of their own, so I started a new page called My Stealthy Freedom. I saw it as a place where we, as Iranian women, could come together and create our own moment of freedom. I consider these women citizen journalists who use social media to spread news around the world about an issue that we are not allowed to talk about within Iran.
As a journalist, I was never allowed to ask even a simple question about hijab. I tried to ask both President [Akbar] Hashemi Rafsanjani [in office 1989-1997] and President [Mohammad] Khatami [in office 1997-2005] about compulsory hijab, but I was not allowed to publish that material. When you turn on the TV in Iran, you see women in black and in hijab, but that is not all of Iran. The real Iran has people who believe in hijab and people who object to compulsory hijab. As a journalist, my responsibility is to show the real face of Iran. Although I have been expelled from my country, I can still report on these women. Facebook is a tool that is helping me reach the real voices from within Iran—something you could never hear on official Iranian media.
GJIA: During a campaign speech delivered on April 20th to commemorate Mother’s Day and Women’s Day in Iran, current President Hassan Rouhani said, “It is not possible to push 50 percent of society into isolation or marginalize them. Women should have equal opportunity, equal protections, and equal social rights.” Do you think he has acted on these words so far in his administration?
MA: Unfortunately, President Rouhani, like many other presidents, has nice words in theory, but in practice he does not act on those words. When people are in power, they tend to forget about the words that got them elected. About the issue of hijab, I have to emphasize the fact that Iranian woman’s hijab is the sole subject that all Iranian politicians agree upon. It doesn’t really matter whether they are reformists, moderates, or conservatives. They all believe that hijab has to be there and they all believe that objecting to hijab is breaking the law, including President Rouhani.
GJIA: With so much international attention on nuclear negotiation with Iran, how can other countries and Iran itself remain focused on human rights?
MA: Nuclear negotiations are an important topic of discussion for Iranians because the Iranian people have suffered greatly from the sanctions and the resulting economic consequences. Iranians do not want to be alienated from the international economic community. At the same time, that does not mean these negotiations should come at the expense of those fighting for their political freedom. Half the population of Iran is made up of women; their struggle for human rights cannot be buried under these diplomatic discussions. Iranians want to get the attention of the Western media to expose the human rights violations that the government has buried. When President Rouhani came to New York City for nuclear negotiations [in September 2013], he said that Iranians living abroad should not be banned from returning or visiting their country. There were a lot of Iranians that then came back to Iran because of this statement; now they are in jail. When Rouhani came to New York for a second time [in September 2014], none of the Western media addressed the issue. This is a problem. How can the basic rights of the Iranian people be ignored, while leaving the sole focus of publication on nuclear issues? It is inhumane.
Masih Alinejad is a distinguished Iranian journalist and author who now lives in exile due to her controversial articles about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Time Magazine published an article in 2008 entitled “Jesus vs. Ahmadinejad” to discuss the meaning and implications of her criticisms. Alinejad has published four books dealing with women’s issues in Iran and political turmoil in the region. Her Facebook page, “My Stealthy Freedom,” on which Iranian women are able to post photos of themselves without their compulsory hijab, has spurred a worldwide movement that seeks to empower Iranian women with the power of choice.
Masih Alinejad was interviewed by Sydney Jean Gottfried and Marisa Hawley on 5 February 2015 in Washington D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.