Visible Women

“What my fight for freedom in Iran taught me about the power of social media”

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Masih Alinejad
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Four years ago, a photo of Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad went viral – because it showed her hair. The image sparked a social media campaign, #MyStealthyFreedom, and put Alinejad at the centre of an international debate about women’s rights in Iran. Here, she explains what she learned from the experience. 

My campaign started by accident when I posted a picture of myself on Facebook. In the photo, I was joyously running through the streets of London without a headscarf, feeling the wind stroke my hair.

Shortly after I posted the picture, my Facebook comments section and inbox were inundated with envious messages from women in Iran – because in Iran, women are compelled to wear the hijab in public, even in the scorching heat of the summer. I replied to each of them by saying that they, too, could enjoy freedom and the wind in their hair. But they’d have to act stealthily.

To my surprise, numerous women sent me furtively-taken photos and videos of themselves in public spaces without their veil. I shared these on my own social media accounts, and from there, the idea of a campaign was born. I made a website, titled ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, which became a platform for Iranian women’s stories and acts of subversion.

I had no idea that the initiative would move beyond my wildest expectations, morphing into parallel online movements like #SeeYouInIranWithoutHijab, #MenInHijab, #MyForbiddenSong, #WhiteWednesdays, #GirlsOfRevolutionStreet, #WalkingUnveiled, and lately, #MyCameraIsMyWeapon.

The sheer success of these campaigns and the massive and continuous engagement by ordinary people from inside Iran have taught me important things about the power of women and the democratising effects of social media.

For years before #MyStealthyFreedom, millions of Iranian women had been fiercely fighting the restrictions placed on them, despite risking arrest. These women heroically countered Iran’s morality police, sometimes by verbally challenging them, sometimes by pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.

Unsurprisingly, media outlets affiliated with the Iranian state never give voice to women who do not want to wear the compulsory hijab. But through hashtags such as #MyStealthyFreedom, millions of discontented women found a way to speak out. I devoted my campaign to amplifying the stories of women who were silenced in their own country, and spreading their messages around the world.

My success came not only through hard work and the dedication of my followers, but also thanks to the power that ordinary people now derive from social media. Simple videos, ranging from women walking unveiled in a crowded street, to women waving their white hijabs from a stick while standing on busy corners, to ordinary citizens filming the brutality of the morality police, have taught me that people can be their own agents of change. 

Several videos sent to me proved to be so controversial that they even drew reactions from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – something previously unheard of for an Iranian social justice campaign.

Iran’s authorities have long dragged their feet when it comes to democratisation, and the country’s media remains tightly controlled by the state. But today, more than 47 million Iranians use social media, and they have found ways to side-step the authorities’ attempts to block popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram.

As a result, state censorship is increasingly irrelevant, and leaders are being forced into accountability. Social media has empowered me, but it has also taught ordinary people in far-flung cities of Iran that their voices count.

#MyStealthyFreedom has come a long way since I walked happily through London four years ago, feeling the wind in my hair. I have learned that the more I give a platform to ordinary people, the more they will empower themselves. It began as a campaign for women - but its success belongs to all Iranians.

Masih Alinejad’s memoir The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran is published by Virago (£14.99).

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Main image: Courtesy of Masih Alinejad

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Masih Alinejad

Masih Alinejad is an internationally-known Iranian journalist and writer. She lives in exile in New York City, and has won several awards, including a human rights award from UN Watch's 2015 Geneva Summit for Human Rights. Her book The Wind in My Hair (Virago, £14.99) is out now.

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