The Iranian woman spearheading a campaign against the country’s compulsory headscarf laws watched in anguish over the weekend as her family denounced her on state TV.
Masih Alinejad told BuzzFeed News over the phone she reacted with “horror and anger” from New York, where she now lives, as her sister attacked her for her activism. “At first, tears rolled down my eyes when the program began.”
“The Islamic Republic is using my family in an Orwellian attempt to shame and humiliate me because of my political beliefs,” Alinejad said, communicating over email, after she couldn’t speak through her tears.
But she said there had been an outbreak of support as women supported her online, many under a hashtag of her name in Farsi, #مسیح علینژاد.
Alinejad came to prominence after founding the #WhiteWednesdays movement in Iran, but was a successful journalist in Iran before she was forced to flee.
Her Facebook page, My Stealthy Freedom, campaigns for Iranian women to have a choice on whether to cover their hair. Alinejad has always been dogmatic on the issue: Cover or not, she wants women to have the choice — something that has been denied in Iran since 1983, after the 1979 revolution, when the hijab became compulsory.
In the past few months, her campaign, which has been running since 2014, has achieved new heights of international attention with posts on Alinejad’s Twitter and Instagram accounts regularly going viral. But the attention has brought her into the crosshairs of the Iranian government.
Most recently, the activist’s account had promoted a new hashtag, #MyCameraIsMyWeapon, capturing how Iranian women and men are using their smartphone cameras to document abuses and demand better rights. Alinejad reckons this was the final straw to push the authorities into coming after her and her family: “Women are becoming empowered and that is dangerous for the Islamic Republic.”
“The program is the culmination of years of pressuring my mother and my father to cooperate with the authorities,” Alinejad said.
The interview on semiofficial state channel Mehr News aired Friday night. Alinejad said the crew had driven six hours to the remote village of Babol, in northern Iran, where her family lives to interview them. “My sister is a housewife,” she said. “Suddenly she became so important to state TV.”
In the interview, which has been widely shared online and used to attack Alinejad, her 53-year-old sister Mina states, “She knows what she’s doing is wrong. I really think she’s not herself anymore. This is not the Masih I used to know. Now that she’s coming and saying these words, it’s not her.”
Mina continued: “I read her posts and thought now it’s time to un-associate myself from her. If I was your sister until now, when you stand against the Supreme Leader, then I will stand up to you. I'll tell her: ‘You’ve crossed my red line and I’m standing up to you.’”
Alinejad hadn’t seen her sister properly in more than a decade until she saw her on her computer screen. She said that “like many other families, mine is also complicated. Not everyone agrees on everything.”
Although her sister has spoken out, Alinejad’s mother and father have remained silent — so far, Alinejad said. “The program has torn our family apart. My parents have so far resisted all the pressures to take part in any propaganda programs against me. My mother is still under pressure,” she said, explaining that she hadn’t been able to get hold of her for days. “My mother was in tears when I spoke to her and told me she just wants all the pressures to stop. I’m extremely worried about my mother’s life.”
“On a personal level, I am immensely proud of my mother for resisting the pressures to appear on these fake news programs to denounce me. I am angry at the pressure brought on my family,” she said. “If the Islamic Republic has an issue with me then they should fight me and not bring my family into it.”
Alinejad said, whatever happened to her, the campaign would continue. “The #WhiteWednesdays campaign doesn’t have one leader. Every woman fighter is a leader.”