After starting a Facebook page where women could post pictures of themselves without their hijab, the state launched a violent smear campaign against me.
Last weekend, I was raped by three men in London. Under the influence of mind-altering drugs, I had removed items of clothing, and the men raped me in front of my son.
That is what the Iran state TV reported in a short news segment about me.
Iranian television, which is controlled by the hardliners, uses George Orwell’s 1984 as an operating manual. Fact and fiction are blended to create a parallel universe at odds with reality as you and I know it.
For the record, I was never assaulted or raped or took any mind-altering drugs.
Why the smear campaign against me? I started a Facebook page, called My Stealthy Freedom, where I asked women about their desires to be without the veil. I was bombarded with selfies of women without their scarves.
The page, which has racked up nearly 500,000 “likes” in five weeks, has sparked a debate on the country’s 35-year-old law that forces women to wear head-covering and other forms of hijab.
Faced with a tsunami of social media protest from women who object to the forced Islamic hijab rules, the authorities in Iran decided to smear the messenger.
As an Iranian journalist, I’m used to hate mail and accusations of being on the payroll of Israel’s Mossad or the Queen of England whenever I’m critical of my homeland’s shortcomings. But I never expected to be the center of a news story.
All freedoms in Iran are under cover—or, as we say, “yavashaki,” or in a stealthy manner. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are banned, but government officials like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are prolific users, and President Hassan Rouhani also has a social media presence.
The response from Iranian women to the My Stealthy Freedom campaign has been phenomenal. Iranian women voted with their selfies. And on the Internet, these pictures are just a click away. One shows a smiling woman who has thrown her black scarf into the air as she stands on an Iranian street. “What I want is freedom of choice, not a meter of cloth! I’ll remove this piece of cloth! Look! I am still a human!” she wrote.
In another picture, a young woman with sunglasses is seen sitting on a bench overlooking what appears to be Tehran. “Freedom means having the right to choose.”
My own favorite is the picture of a woman in hijab holding a sign that reads, “I support and wear hijab but I am against compulsory hijab.”
This is scary for the Islamic Republic. After all, for 35 years, the hardliners have portrayed Iran as a 100% Islamic nation where there is always a crowd ready to chant “Death to America” and “Death to Israel,” and where women are covered up in black chadors, a loose cloth that covers them from head to toe. Deciding what you can wear is a form of freedom of speech. And that is a luxury not available in Iran. But the stealthy women wanted to show a different face of Iran that is often ignored by the state-controlled media and the visiting Western media.
At first, several news organizations, such as Fars News Agency, associated with the Revolutionary Guards, dismissed the campaign. Then, two Friday prayer leaders condemned the insidious attempts via the Internet to persuade women to disregard the hijab.
One commentator at Tasnim News Agency suggested that men had a right to rape women without hijab because they were asking for it, and men could not be responsible for giving in to their urges.
Just last week, former presidential candidate Haddad Adel, who is also an adviser to the Supreme Leader, said the government was losing control of the hijab issue.
It was then that the hysterical anxiety of the hardliners came out, first with the fake rape story, followed by a popular TV presenter comparing me to a “whore.”
“Masih Alinejad is a whore, and not a heretic as some people claim her to be,” wrote Vahid Yaminpour, an influential conservative Iranian commentator and TV personality, on his Facebook page. “We shouldn’t elevate her to the level of a heretic. She’s just trying to compensate her psychological (and probably financial) needs by recruiting young women and sharing her notoriety with younger women who are still not prostitutes.”
My attackers have no idea as to the horrors of rape and how it’s not a joking matter for women. I’m shocked the TV program didn’t even spare my son.
The authorities’ reaction to My Stealthy Freedom has to be seen in a bigger context: whenever Iranians are given the choice, they opt to move forward and not back to the so-called golden age of Islam in the 7th Century. For too long the hardliners have kept our hair under the proverbial lock and key and fed our minds with fake and biased news about the outside world.
Iranians want to have the right to choose what they wear, what music they listen to and not be lashed for having a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. When Iran qualified for the World Cup last June, there was a massive spontaneous street party across the country, where men and women mingled freely, with the police standing by helplessly.
But then last month, six young Iranians who posted a video of themselves dancing to the Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” were arrested.
I’ve thought long and hard about how to respond. As a matter of principle, I’m going to sue for damages and file a formal complaint against the state television.
But my real revenge is to use what the hardliners are most petrified of: a video of myself singing in a London subway station, without a veil.
Masih Alinejad is an Iranian journalist living in London. She has her own segment on Voice of America’s OnTen program.