By Benny Avni
Masih Alinejad’s hair scares Iran’s leaders, and Washington is finally taking notice.
In his Monday speech detailing America’s new Iran strategy, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “As seen from the hijab protests, the brutal men of the regime seem to be particularly terrified by Iranian women who are demanding their rights.”
Alinejad, an Iranian, is widely credited with igniting the hijab protests. And even though she now lives in Brooklyn, the clerics of Tehran still fear her.
In March she came to the Pakistani embassy in Washington, where Iran maintains an interests section, to file a legal complaint against a Basiji (an Iranian paramilitary religious enforcer) who’d threatened to “butcher” her — as always, with no head cover.
Seeing her exposed hair, even in the heart of the US capital, the Iranian desk official immediately called up the US Secret Service. (She left before agents arrived.)
Yet, the revolution goes on.
“The Islamic Republic’s ideology has taken our bodies and our hair hostage for 40 years,” Alinejad told me recently. She avoids talk of “regime change,” but adds, “In the past four years women are taking action. We’re done negotiating, we are taking to the streets to take back our rights.”
Her peaceful protest is as dangerous for the mullahs as any other threat to their crumbling regime.
The White Wednesdays campaign she launched in 2017 was simple: Go out into the street, preferably on a Wednesday, take the mandatory head-covering cloth off, wave it proudly in the air and document the act.
Alinejad tells me Iranian high-school teachers constantly warn girl students against joining her campaign. Nevertheless, once the sermon ends and the teacher is out of sight, many girls spitefully throw off their hijabs.
Spreading the campaign to 2.5 million followers on her various social media accounts, Alinejad notes she has “more followers than Khamenei, Rouhani and Zarif combined.”
True, some of those followers, bearded men, habitually post threatening video clips on her Instagram accounts. Yet most on Alinejad’s timeline are women, proudly posting defiant videos despite the danger involved.
One follower detailed her travails after being arrested for violating the hijab law. Her regime interrogator kept asking about Alinejad’s organization. Why, in allah’s name, would she “work for Masih,” he demanded.
Her answer: “I don’t. Masih works for me.”
There’s little organization behind the campaign. Other than advice she gets from her husband, journalist Kambiz Foroohar, Masih is largely a one-woman show, recording on her phone and spreading video-taped White Wednesday defiance.
The authorities constantly attempt to block social-media access, as they did recently by shutting down the popular messaging app Telegram. But the well-educated public finds ways to get back online.
Alinejad’s innovative methods are perfect for such an environment. After the 2009 Green Revolution she became famous in Iran for embarrassing regime bigwigs by posting audio clips of recorded conversations with them. (She was eventually forced to flee Iran.)
Now she has a show on the Voice of America Persian service, and her autobiographical book, “The Wind In My Hair,” is due out next week.
As a teenager, after school Alinejad would often change from the mandatory confining uniform to an attire that still concealed much but was more comfortable. One day she ran into her father, a Basiji, on the street. He yelled, “Why are you running around naked?” That was a turning point.
As articulated by Pompeo Monday, “As human beings with inherent dignity and inalienable rights, the women of Iran deserve the same freedoms that the men of Iran possess.”
Pompeo didn’t need to mention regime change. To get out from under his promised “strongest sanctions in history,” Iran must stop chasing nukes or financing terrorists and in general turn away from its anti-America incitement.
But can it? Those, after all, are part of the Islamic Republic’s DNA. As is mandating the hijab. Because once women massively ignore religious edicts dictated by men, the ugly Khomeini chapter in Iran’s glorious history will end.
So the mullahs are scared of Alinejad’s hair.