Masih Alinejad is a journalist and the founder of My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign to oppose laws requiring head scarves in Iran. She is the author of an upcoming memoir “The Wind in My Hair.”
About two weeks ago, I received a gruesome death threat from Hamid Reza Ahmadabadi, one of the more prominent figures of the Basij — Iran’s much-dreaded paramilitary arm. In his message, he said I’d be butchered because I had been insulting the sanctity of Iran’s revolutionary and Islamic values. He warned that one of his agents in the United States would cut out my tongue and slash my breasts before killing me. I was to be “slaughtered” in the same manner that former opposition leaders had been murdered abroad in the 1990s.
In a later interview with the BBC Persian service, he reiterated the same threats, making references to the assassination of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the shah’s last prime minister, and Fereydoun Farrokhzad, a dissident artist who was murdered in Germany.
My crime was that I had dared to challenge Iran’s onerous compulsory hijab laws. Since 1979, it has been illegal for women not to cover their head. Four years ago, I started a campaign, My Stealthy Freedom, asking women in Iran to post photos of themselves in public without their head scarves. We wanted women to have the freedom to choose how they were covered. Last May, we started a new movement, called White Wednesdays, in which women filmed themselves walking in public without a hijab. We chose white as the color of resistance. Since last December, more and more women are challenging this discriminatory law, risking arrest, jail or worse. Twenty-nine women were arrested. The supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chose to denounce the campaign on International Women’s Day.
I am used to receiving death threats, much like other Iranian dissidents both abroad and inside Iran. However, what was particularly disconcerting about this threat, apart from the gruesome details, was that Ahmadabadi uttered these words with shocking impunity. It is mind-boggling that while these innocent people are imprisoned for championing human rights, people like Ahmadabadi (described as “Mr. Big Mouth” by the New York Times) can easily get away with making death threats without being arrested. This is pure injustice.
I decided to make an official complaint against Ahmadabadi, knowing full well that Iran’s judiciary does not take heed of dissidents’ complaints. Four years ago, when the city of Isfahan in central Iran was rocked by acid attacks against “badly veiled” women, dissidents inside the country filed official complaints against the attackers. Yet rather than arresting the attackers, the judiciary went after the dissidents. Given the Iran’s judiciary’s track record, I had no hope that our justice system would officially recognize my complaint. However, I decided to file it anyway.
Iran and the United States cut off diplomatic relations after “students” occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and took the embassy staff and diplomats as hostages for 444 days. An Iranian interests section located in the Pakistani Embassy in Washington handles consular activities. To pursue my complaint, I had to formally file my papers authorizing Nasrin Sotoudeh, a renowned human rights lawyer, to take action on my behalf.
I then faced a catch-22 situation. Women are obligated to wear the compulsory veil to enter the building housing the Iranian interests section or to conduct any official business. Officials there demanded that I wear a hijab to in order to be allowed in to file a complaint against a person who threatened to kill me — because of my campaign against compulsory hijab.
I was not prepared to do that.
When they failed to persuade me to wear a hijab, the officials’ next action was to try to physically push me out of the interests section. As I resisted their efforts, one of the staff ordered his colleague to call the U.S. Secret Service. I thought it was ironic that officials of Iran — a country that organizes yearly celebrations of the 1979 taking of American hostages, where pro-regime crowds chant “Death to America” and label the United States as the “Great Satan” — were now calling on the U.S. Secret Service to help them against a woman who had refused to cover her hair.
That’s when it dawned on me. As far as Iran is concerned, the biggest threat comes not from the United States, but from unveiled women like me who fight for their rights.
The officials evicted me from the premises. I did not succeed in filing a complaint about the death threat that I had received. Clearly, for the Islamic Republic of Iran, covering a woman’s hair is more important than protecting a woman’s life.
What happened to me at the interests section is testimony to the violence that we, the women of Iran, have been experiencing for almost four decades. Iranian authorities do not let girls enter schools starting at age 7 if they do not wear the compulsory veil. In Iran, without a hijab, you cannot apply to get identification, a job, an education or a place to live in your own homeland. You don’t exist. So, when we fight against compulsory hijab, we fight for our own existence and identity. And we will continue our battle.