Unveiled for Equality
Interview of Masih Alinejad
By Francine Sporenda
Masih Alinejad is an iranian journalist and a campaigner for women’s rights. She started the campaigns « My Stealthy Freedom » (iranian women taking photos of themselves unveiled and posting them online http://mystealthyfreedom.net/en/) and #Meninhijab (see underneath)
FS : You say you wore the hijab for 30 years–even at night– to obey your father and that even after moving to Great Britain, you continued to wear it because, to your opinion, censorship is external but is also internalized. Can you tell us about the way women internalize misogyny in Iran (and elsewhere) ?
MA : Women are conditioned by history, culture and family norms to be subservient. Often the idea of a « good woman » in the Middle East is the woman who is invisible, working in the kitchen, away from the outside world. The hijab serves as a wall to keep women in check. This is especially so when you have compulsory hijab but even in « Muslim countries » where the hijab is voluntary, there are social pressures and taboos against independent women.
It varies from country to country. In the Islamic Republic, women occupy 60 percent of university positions but face a hard ceiling on how far they can climb. No woman can be a government minister or a judge or take the top position in a government office. Faced with such restrictions, women internalize misogyny, even though Iranian women had a history of progress and achievement, until the arrival of the Islamic Republic.
FS : You say that deciding to remove the hijab was a long psychological process because it was a part of you. Could you tell us about the different steps of this long psychological process ?
MA : The Islamic Republic has put women under the veil and insists that only loose women, or women without good morals have « bad hijabs » or no hijab. In my family, all the women wore a hijab — from my mother to my sister and aunts in fact everyone wore the veil. I was a bit of a rebel but I had to be covered up when I was with my family. After my first marriage, there was less family pressure but again, whether I was working as a Parliamentary correspondent or visiting my parents, I was always covered up — my hair was always covered, I had long sleeve shirts, trousers and a dress on top of that. So for nearly 30 years, I was under cover, and for longer than that–since I was aware–I had always seen women as being under cover. Sure, I had seen pictures of Western women without hijab but they were Western, foreign, and did not really exist in my universe.
Even when I left Iran, I wore a hat to cover my hair, as a modified head covering that didn’t make me stick out in the UK and the US and at the same time was a signal that I was following the edicts of my country and respected my family. It was a difficult compromise. I was mocked by Iranians who opposed the Islamic Republic for wearing a hat and in Iran I was attacked for my journalism and activism. I stuck with it. And over time, the hat became part of me, even my critics accepted it, even as they mocked me. I always explained that the hat was to respect my family and their beliefs. But it felt forced. Wearing a hat did not make me a good person, in the same way that a hijab does not determine the good morals of a woman : to be judged based on what I wore was just ridiculous. I did not have the courage to remove the hat. It took me more than two years to appear in public without my hat, I felt liberated and scared at the same time. But I had to stick to my beliefs — what I wear does not determine who I am.
FS : You say that wearing a hijab is a matter of personal choice. How much of a personal choice can it be when women not wearing the hijab are harassed or arrested by the police (in Iran), and in some areas of France, are shamed, called whores and assaulted? You were also warned that if you showed your hair, you’d go to hell. Can there be any real choice under this level of constraint and pressure ?
MA : The Islamic world is going through a strange period where extremist views are influencing the mainstream, in the same way that the Tea Party activists are driving the political agenda in the US. From the 1950s and 60s all the way to the mid-1990s, the « Muslim world » was confident and rational, not bitter and warlike. Muslim women in Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and Iran could dress like Western women without being hassled. Then the Islamic Revolution and other developments happened in the region and fringe ideas replaced « moderate » views.
In this atmosphere, it is tough for women when they are called whores for not wearing a hijab. In « Muslim countries » where the hijab is not obligatory, there are cultural and family pressures on women. But in the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia, the compulsory hijab is enforced by the law. To change the culture, it helps to have a law that does not imprison women or fines them or lashes them with a whip for not a wearing a hijab. It will not be easy but we have to change the culture of a region that is in a hateful downward spiral.
I was warned about going to hell and much worse… The official state TV broadcast an item on its main evening news that I had been raped in London for not wearing a hijab. But once the law is changed so there are no official sanctions against women who shed their hijab, then it is easier to tackle the culture.
FS : What do you think of this quotation by Ahmad Batebi : »many activists have claimed that obligatory veiling is not a human right priority but the overwhelming support for your campaign « My Stealthy Freedom » showed that it’s a priority for many Iranians ». Why is this issue so important for women and men and Iran ?
MA : Compulsory hijab is a human rights issue and a women’s right issue. But often the politicians and other activists say there are « more important » issues and have relegated this cause to the end of the queue. The reality is that compulsory hijab is a way of impacting a woman’s self identity. What we wear, or are forced to wear, impacts how we see ourselves. If we look submissive, then that is an image that eventually will become self fulfilling.
My Stealthy Freedom has shown that a significant part of Iran’s female population opposes compulsory hijab and it is a major issue. We cannot tackle bigger issues unless we tackle such personal freedom issues. A society that has no respect for a person’s rights, will not respect laws against discrimination or corruption. There was a US politician who said that all politics is local and later it was amended by the saying that all politics is personal. In the West, the society has moved to accept gay rights and to allow them to marry and enjoy full rights. There were times, I’m sure, when activists would say that there are bigger problems than gay rights but we have learned that we cannot tackle those grand problems without solving the small ones.
FS : You are very critical of western politicians (like Catherine Ashton or Ségolène Royal) who accept to wear a hijab when they come to Iran. Can you explain why ?
MA : Here is a link to my latest statement on the hypocrisy of Western female politicians who visit Iran and wear compulsory hijab http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/burkini-ban-hijab-campaigner-iran-why-dropped-after-less-than-month-a7232681.html
If the West told the Islamic Republic that Iranian female politicians visiting the West must take off their hijab, the answer would be a resounding « Hell No ». So, why is it that Western female politicians go to Iran and don the hijab ? I look to Western female politicians for support, I want them to support women’s rights, not to give in to patriarchal rules that have no basis in Islam. Just say no to compulsory hijab. Or if they accept the compulsory hijab, then these leaders must insist that Iranians female politicians also shed their hijab when they are on a state visit to the West. I want Western politicians to stand for their own dignity.
FS : A commentator at Tasnim News Agency also said that men have the right to rape women without hijabs, because they are « asking for it », and men cannot be held responsible for giving in to their « urges ». What do you think of this statement and are Iranian men necessarily angry or out of control when they see a hijabless woman ?
MA : Strong women are a challenge to the male-centric political systems in the Middle East. I actually took legal action against the writers that claimed they could rape me but the courts threw out my claim as I was not living in Iran. The reality is that men are not going to rape women without hijab — my new project or challenge under the My Stealthy Freedom campaign is the #meninhijab. I’ve received hundreds of photos of men wearing a hijab standing next to their mothers or wives or sisters who are unveiled. They say that a man’s honor is not measured by how much his female relations are covered up. It is a humorous challenge to show how ridiculous it is to say that a woman wearing the hijab is chaste and honorable. And more and more men are embracing it — men in Iran do not want to be associated with regressive forces but want to look to a more open, free and fair society.
FS : Some feminists in western countries say that the hijab is just an ordinary garment, and there is no point fighting against it, since lots of women are happy with it. Do you think the hijab is just an ordinary garment ?
MA : In the West, where there is freedom of choice, perhaps the hijab can be described as an ordinary garment but quite frankly, that is a naïve and ridiculous statement. The hijab is a politically loaded garment. Every « Muslim » or Middle Eastern woman makes a conscious choice to wear or not to wear it.
Recently, a hair stylist in Norway refused to cut the hair of a woman who wore a hijab. She was fined 8-9,000 krone and if she doesn’t pay it she could go to jail. Sometimes, it seems the West is bending over backwards to appease the Muslims rather than standing for their own values. If an Iranian hair stylist in Iran refused to cut the hair of a Jewish customer or a Baha’i, there would be no fines or legal actions taken. Remember, athletes from many « Muslim countries » refuse to compete against Israeli athletes, preferring to lose by default and be exalted back home for their actions.
Compulsory hijab is the most visible symbol of women’s oppression. We need to challenge this bad law to have a chance at getting full equality for women.