It all started last May, when Masih Alinejad posted to Facebook a few old pictures of herself without a headscarf in different locations around Iran, and posed the question of whether other women had ever removed their hijab, or headscarf, and documented it. Alinejad, who grew up in Iran and now lives in Brooklyn, did not know what sort of response to expect: Wearing the hijab has been required by Islamic law in Iran since the 1979 revolution, and violators can face fines or imprisonment. But to her astonishment, she received thousands of photos, videos, and messages from women who also had defied the law. So she created a Facebook page, My Stealthy Freedom, where she began to post the submissions.
The photos are taken in public, often under signs that urge women to cover their hair, and away from the eyes of morality police. “This is me, a 24-year-old from Tehran,” wrote one woman with long red hair who appeared to be laughing heartily in her photo. “I dream of the day that I can choose the style and color of my clothing, a tiny share of anyone’s human rights.”
“Only a video could capture the liberating sense I feel when the wind blows through my hair,” wrote another woman. She had sent a film of herself on a flat-roofed building, thrusting her waist-length hair into the air. “Yet I am not even free on my own roof.”
In a matter of days, My Stealthy Freedom became a genuine phenomenon in Alinejad’s home country and outside of it, drawing more than 778,000 fans to this date and initiating one of few open conversations about the veil, a sensitive subject even activists are hesitant to raise. Photos continued to pour in—from women pressured to wear the veil by both their families and the state; from secular women who had long opposed the veil; from men sending in pictures of their unveiled mothers or wives—often accompanied by poignant testimonies about the restrictions of the veil.
It’s an emotional terrain Alinejad knows intimately, having gone her first sixteen years without removing her headscarf, not even in her sleep. “The scarf was a part of my body,” Alinejad explained on a recent afternoon at a café near her Brooklyn apartment, running her fingers through her long curly hair. “Unveiling was a long psychological process.”
Minutes after Alinejad was born, in a small village in northern Iran called Ghomikola, her parents covered her hair. As a child, she can’t remember ever taking off the scarf. “I used to wake up in middle of the night and touch my head to see if my scarf was there,” said Alinejad, whose father required her to wear tent-like head-to-toe garb in addition to the headscarf and coat required by law. “If it had slipped off, I would find it in the dark and cover my hair before falling asleep.” Alinejad remembers yearning for the relative freedom enjoyed by her older brother. “I did not know the meaning of human rights at the age of seven, but it angered me that my brother, just two years older than me, could dash out of the door any time he wished, ride a bike, and swim in the river, but I, as a girl, was banned from doing all those things,” she said. “I still remember the temptation of wanting to peel off my clothes like my brother and jump in the river.”
Despite the admonitions she received at home and at school, where a cleric regularly warned female students that if they showed their hair they would go to hell (and be hanged by their braids above a blazing fire), Alinejad began to experiment with removing her scarf. By the age of sixteen, despite the objections of her father, Alinejad had shed her chador, or full-body cloak, and opted for a simple scarf and long coat. Three years later, at nineteen, she married a poet, and in his care she was free to wear more stylish coats and to let her headscarf slip back, revealing some of her hair. He also took pictures of her at the beach without a headscarf. “It was only then that I discovered my hair,” she said. “My hair had not been part of my body until then.”
Cut to 2007, more than a decade later. Alinejad was by now divorced and living in London, where she was pursuing a bachelor’s degree in communications and working as a journalist. Though she was eager to unveil, she still couldn’t bring herself to do it. “I was raised in a culture that told us the veil protects you from corruption, shields you from bad people, and keeps you away from sins,” she explained. “These values become an integral part of your identity, no matter how much you deny them.” By 2009, Alinejad was going bareheaded in public, but in front of Iranians and on TV, she would wear a hat. In London, she discovered that her hair was curly and chaotic—the veil had tamed and flattened it—and she began to secure it on top of her head with a rubber band, spreading the curls on both sides of her head, in a style that her young son compared to a Christmas tree.
In time Alinejad remarried and, last year, moved to Brooklyn with her new husband, who is Iranian-American. On the afternoon that I met her at her apartment, she scurried up a set of stairs to a space in her attic where she has stitched together pieces from her past and present. From a closet she began to pull out dresses that she wears now. “I like to be feminine these days,” she said, flashing two red frocks, one knee-length, the other ankle-length. She slipped her feet into a pair of black pumps and took long strides, fiddling with a gray scarf around her neck: the old headscarves that once concealed her hair she now wears as accessories.
Alinejad pointed to a bed in the corner where she naps during the day; to bridge the time difference with Iran, she works on My Stealthy Freedom late into the night. Last summer, a new photo or video came in every minute. On her computer, she pulls up a picture, showing only the back of a woman’s head. “I could not show my face because of my family,” the woman had written alongside the photo. “This means restriction is worst for many of us because our families are so religious.”
The same woman sent another photo a week later, one that shows her beaming a toothy smile, wind blowing through her long hair. This time, the woman said that her father, a secret fan of Alinejad’s Facebook page, had recognized the previous, faceless photo. “Stealthy freedom becomes more enjoyable when you grow up in a religious family, and your family respects your beliefs and allows you to make your own decision,” she wrote. “My father took this photo at the Persian Gulf and urged me to share it with the women of my country. I am so happy that My Stealthy Freedom gave me the right to have a choice in my own home.”
Stories like these eventually attracted the attention of hardliners in Iran, who reacted angrily to the campaign and attempted to discredit Alinejad. They publically called her a spy, and an online army began to send her daily hate messages. Iran’s state-run television even made a short news report about her, fabricating a story that she had been raped in London while “she had been naked,” a term for an unveiled woman, and accused her of being on drugs. (Thankfully, none of the women or men who have written to Alinejad have faced retribution in Iran.)
Alinejad was not deterred. On February 24, she traveled to Switzerland to accept the Women’s Rights Award at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, sponsored by 20 global human-rights organizations. Tamara Dancheva, a human rights officer with the London-based organization Liberal International, said during the ceremony that the prize was given to Alinejad “for giving a voice to the voiceless and stirring the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic rights, freedom, and equality.” The spokesperson for Human Rights Activists in Iran, Ahmad Batebi, said in an interview that the award demonstrated that the international community had heard the voices of Iranian women. “Many activists have claimed that obligatory veiling is not a human rights priority,” he said, “but the overwhelming support for My Stealthy Freedom showed that it is a priority for many inside Iran.”
With caution, Alinejad is working to expand the campaign. In the address she delivered in Geneva, before United Nations delegates, journalists, and human-right activists, Alinejad praised Michelle Obama for refusing to cover her hair during a recent visit to Saudi Arabia, but said that only Iran legally bans the first lady from showing her hair. She is also actively encouraging Western women politicians who travel to Iran to ask officials why, as foreigners, they must cover their hair. “Iranian authorities ask their Western hosts not to serve liquor outside Iran, saying that alcohol is against their religion,” she said. “Obligatory veiling is against human dignity. Why must they cover their hair?”
Nazila Fathi is the author of The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran_._
Sittings Editor: Ketevan Gvaramadze; Hair: Tetsuya Yamakata; Makeup: Stefanie Willman
Photographed at The Musket Room, New York