Meet The Woman Behind #MyStealthyFreedom – The Selfie Revolution Sweeping Iran

Posting pictures of themselves without their hijabs is a way of women taking back control


by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

‘I was bursting with happiness to feel the wind through my hair without someone around to see it and warn me to keep covered properly,’ writes one anonymous woman beneath a picture she's posted on Facebook of herself smiling waving on the beach. ‘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,’ writes another young Iranian woman underneath a selfie she's taken looking thoughtfully out into the countryside.

But these aren't just philosophical Facebook status updates from young women around the world – they are part of a concerted effort by Iranians to petition against the fact that women in the country still face strict regulation about what they're allowed to wear. By posting pictures of themselves without their hijab to the Facebook page called

, they're illustrating that whilst the government might control what they wear in real life, it can't stem social media.

Facebook is officially illegal in Iran, but there have generally been no legal implications for the 58% of Iranians who use the social networking site. Reports suggest that unmarried men and women now openly date and, in some cases, even live together. But one area where the government is still utterly emphatic is the dress code for Iranian women, who are required to dress ‘modestly’ if they don’t want to risk 70 lashes or 60 days in prison. And last week around 500 protestors dressed head to toe in black chadors took to the streets in Iran calling for stricter enforcements of Islamic dress codes for women. Which is perhaps why the Facebook group has had such a phenomenal response. Since the website launched 10 days go, the site has received nearly 150,000 likes (and counting) and hundreds of women have already posted pictures of themselves without their headscarves.

‘I don’t believe in the hijab,’ 37 year-old single mother and group founder Masih Alinejad tells The Debrief. ‘I moved from Iran to the UK a few years ago because my refusal to wear a scarf in public meant I wasn’t able to get a university education. My hair had been a prisoner to the Iranian government, but it wasn’t in the UK. I had been a political journalist back at home and I have a lot a followers on Facebook, so when I posted a picture of myself without a scarf in public, women from Iran contacted me in their droves me to tell me how much they wished they could have the same kind of freedom in their own country. As a case in point, I posted a selfie I’d taken of myself driving a car in a busy street in Iran without my hijab. It was my attempt to show that, as Iranian women, we don’t have to care that the government prohibits our freedom – we know how to have it in a stealthy way.’

It’s an idea that's struck a chord, and in just a week dozens of women had send Masih their own selfies taken without the hijab. In fact, it's so many that she decided to set up the #mystealthyfreedom Facebook page. Despite the potentially explosive message behind it, Masih insists that she is not a political activist, nor does she necessarily consider herself to be a feminist. ‘What I believe in is equality and I will fight for equality until the end,’ she explains. ‘I prefer to call myself a journalist, because all I’m trying to do is raise awareness and provide Iranian women – some of whom come from very rural areas where their freedom of speech is limited – with a platform to express themselves and just be themselves.’

Perhaps inevitably, though, for all the success of Masih's mission, she's also facing a backlash from the more conservative members of the Islamic community, with many people accusing her of positioning herself as a leader of a new, anti-Islamic revolution. ‘A lot of people have said that I’ve moved to a Western country and have learnt to disrespect Islam and Islamic women,’ Masih explains to us. ‘It simply isn’t the case. Conservative newspapers and agencies have lambasted me for what I’m doing and people have labelled me dangerous because they want to scare women to stop them sending in pictures to the Facebook group. I’ve been called an ugly duckling and other meaningless insults. It doesn’t bother me – I expected it and I’m used to it.’

Masih has come up against criticism for a number of years as an political journalist in Iran for daring to be a woman and be outspoken. When she interviewed a former president of Iran, she was blocked from asking any questions about women and the hijab. She was also prevented from studying journalism at university in her own country because she wouldn't wear a scarf, while another Iranian politician refused to answer her questions whilst her hair was exposed. But, whilst she wants to change the situation, it’s an entrenched culture that she understands. ‘I understand why women find it difficult to break the norms,’ she explains. ‘I do not have the same beliefs as my family, who come from a rural town north of Iran, but I would wear the hijab against these beliefs because I loved them. I wasn’t brave enough for a long time to break down the barriers and upset them, but I had to go my own path. Despite what my critics think, I am not doing to this ban the hijab – I just want me and my sister, who I love, to have the same right to choose and wear whatever we want.’

And despite some criticism, Masih maintains the response has been overwhelmingly positive. ‘Some of the stories have been incredibly touching. Someone posted a picture of three generations of the same family – a granddaughter, mother and daughter – all posing without their hijabs. Another woman told me that her brother – who had never seen his own sister without a scarf – actually took the picture that she posted on our page. This is so important, because it’s often brothers, husbands and fathers who are seen as barriers to freedom and it was very courageous to show that there are a lot of men inside Iran who want to help their sisters as well. Every day, I am encouraged by the reams of positive pictures that are coming in.’

She also hopes that the success of the page will prove that there's a side of Iran that's rarely seen by the Western media. ‘I wanted to show something positive. There might have been 500 people on the street protesting for stricter enforcement of the Islamic dress code for women, but we have had thousands of likes for our page in a matter of days. It shows just how many women in Iran need a new platform to get their voices heard.’

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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