With over 777,000 likes, Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad’s Facebook page, My Stealthy Freedom, gives Iranian women a voice in their struggle against male-dominated society, echoing the women’s liberation struggle of 1979.
I n October 2014, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, became emotional when she named her favourite Facebook page at the Fortune Most Powerful Women conference in California. The page is called “My Stealthy Freedom” (یواشکی زنان در ایران) and was created in May 2014 by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad to showcase pictures of women inside Iran not wearing a headscarf.
Ms. Alinejad publishes not only the pictures, but also the stories of those women who bravely take the risk of being photographed with bare heads and flowing hair. She got the idea from a photograph of herself with no hijab, which she posted in 2009 while driving in northern Iran. She captioned it: “I bet a lot of women have such photos of their secret freedom - this is me on the way North.”
"These are not women activists, but just ordinary women talking from their hearts.”
Many photos immortalise women in the act of taking off their veil or with their veil flying behind them in a sign of liberation from the imposition of having to cover themselves. One woman captioned her black and white photo: “I just want to have the right to CHOOSE! Maybe I would have even chosen to wear a scarf if I'd had options to choose from. But it hurts me so much when others make decisions for ME instead of myself!! My photo is grey; just like my life.”
Another picture portrays three uncovered women belonging to three different generations, saying: “Stealthy freedom is more enjoyable when you've grown in a religious family that respects your choice based on your beliefs, but it becomes even sweeter when your father decides to take a picture of your stealthy freedom on the seaside by the Persian Gulf, with his own camera.”
Ever since the 1979 revolution, it has been illegal for a woman to leave the house without wearing the hijab. In 1983, when the first written law was passed, Iran made it compulsory to wear headscarves and loose clothing, with punishment ranging from lashes to imprisonment. But even before the law was passed, the sight of a few strands of hair was not tolerated in public. Thirty-five years later, the same rules apply.
While today covering is compulsory in Saudi Arabia and Iran, in many other countries such as Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan the veil has been used as a political and religious means to reclaim Muslim identity. Despite not being compulsory, women in these countries are pressured by the authorities and conservative families to cover themselves.
In countries like Iran, where the veil is compulsory and the regime is highly repressive, it is hard to assess if women wear the hijab voluntarily or not, but it is nonetheless evident that many of them consider the Islamic Revolution as a step back for their emancipation.
“I’m not at this protest to stop wearing the chador [full body-length scarf]. I am a mother of six daughters and I’m protesting because I don’t want the men to force them to wear the chador.” Campaigns like My Stealthy Freedom are a reminder of how women from different socio-economic backgrounds defy the imposition of the hijab, while struggling with the authorities and the patriarchal values of a conservative society.
Recent expressions of dissent have made international news. In September 2014, three men and three women were arrested for appearing in a video dancing to Pharrell Williams' song ‘Happy’ and sentenced to up to one year in prison and to 91 lashes. In October 2014, the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya news channel reported of 13 cases of acid attacks in the town of Isfahan against women drivers who were badly veiled. “Such an act under any pretext is reprehensible,” Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, a Friday prayers leader, told Al-Arabiya, “Even if a woman goes out into the street in the worst way, no one has the right to do such a thing.”
The women appearing on My Stealthy Freedom’s Facebook page have had more luck in not being prosecuted for their online crime, but the burden of patriarchal values in everyday life weighs heavily on their shoulders. “Being a woman in Iran means that there is always some kind of pressure inside you, at the age of seven you are banned from showing your hair. If you want to go to school you have to cover your hair, and when you want to sing, singing solo is forbidden for women as well," Ms. Alinejad said in an interview with VICE News.
Now living abroad, Ms. Alinejad was born to a traditional and religious family, but her student activism when producing leaflets critical of the government landed her in jail at the age of 20. After her release, she left her small town for Tehran, where she worked as a journalist for several newspapers, starting with the daily Hambastegi, and later with the Iranian Labour News Agency as a parliamentary correspondent.
However, her journalistic activity got her in trouble. She left Iran in 2009 after she exposed a bonus scandal in the Iranian parliament, which prompted a campaign of defamation against her. In retaliation to her activism, she says to have been discredited by ministers who called her rude, obnoxious, coquette and flirtatious: all names that in a society like Iran carry a particularly strong meaning.
It was in February 2015 that Ms. Alinejad’s uncalculated Facebook campaign garnered her the 2015 Women's Rights Award at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy that she hopes will “raise global awareness about Iranian women who are standing up for their basic rights”.
The history of Iranian feminism dates back to the 19th century when the Kingdom of Iran experienced a number of socio-economic changes, following the penetration of European forces and Western values. Women organised themselves into collectives, campaigned against polygamy and seclusion, and discussed topics like education and the veil.
Feminism in Iran today is not just synonymous with challenging the veil. It targets patriarchal sharia law reinforced by centuries of male-dominated jurisprudence and interpretation of the Quran. According to Iranian feminist Ziba Mir-Hosseini, it provides a theoretical context for Muslim women to advocate gender equality and maintain their Muslim identity at the same time.
When the veil was banned in 1936 by Shah Reza Pahlavi, in his attempt to modernise Iran, women in rural areas, much more accustomed to covering themselves as a sign of religious observance than their urban counterparts, perceived the ban as a scandal and a cause of great practical inconvenience because it limited their ability to participate in public life. As the modernisation attempted by Shah Pahlavi began to be perceived as a threat to Islam, the hijab underwent a revival in Iran’s cities as a powerful symbol of religious identity.
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, numerous boundaries separating men and women in society were erected while female vigilante groups were organised to maintain state codes of female appearances in public places. Males and females were separated in university classes and female students barred from 69 different fields of study including agriculture and engineering; women were banned from professions such as the judiciary and from joining singing groups.
Today the authorities no longer complain about improper veiling but fight against unveiling and, according to London-based activist Maryam Namazie, the challenge against the regime is very much a female one. “Firstly”, she tells The World Weekly, “because the suppression of women is a main pillar of the regime and because this suppression takes a very physical form of erasing women’s bodies from the public space. It is also the first line of fight-back because women constantly transgress and disobey the rules.”
My Stealthy Freedom echoes the voices of those Iranian women organised in the Women’s Liberation Movement, who on March 8, 1979 gathered in the streets of Tehran to oppose the political and religious impositions of the Islamic Republic. Both men and women chanted to slogans calling for freedom such as “we do not want to be forced to wear the veil” and “freedom is neither Western or Eastern, but universal”. Three generations later, women haven’t stopped protesting.