The first thing to notice about Masih Alinejad is her hair: a mass of corkscrew curls sometimes worn loose like a radiant halo, occasionally pinned up, almost always with a flower pinned above her left ear. This is not a gratuitous comment on her appearance, but at the heart of a battle that brought her to Paris this week to speak to President Emmanuel Macron.
Alinejad is the international face and voice of angry women in Iran who are being beaten, jailed and even killed for throwing off their compulsory headscarves and showing their hair. Today in Paris, she has a very clear message for the French president and other western leaders: stop shaking hands with Iranian clerics, stop dealing with Iran.
“I want to ask President Macron if he wants to stand with those who are actually killing people, taking hostages, oppressing people and trying to suppress a peaceful revolution, or does he want to stand on the right side of history?” she says.
“I want him to stop negotiating with the Islamic Republic, until the day the regime stops killing people. I want him to recall his ambassadors, to call his allies and ask them to all downgrade their diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic, to kick out all their diplomats and put the Islamic Revolutionary Guards on the terrorist list.
“I’m not asking the leaders of democratic countries to come and save us. I don’t want them to save us, I want them to stop saving the Islamic Republic.
“This ongoing uprising is just the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. This is the 21st century and it’s not acceptable for that government to kill children or teenagers or schoolgirls for dancing, for showing their hair, for singing or for wanting to have a normal life.”
There are more than 42 million women in Iran who have been forced to cover their heads in public since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah. The current wave of protests against the Tehran regime erupted in September after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, died at the hands of Iran’s morality police force, which is notorious for the brutal enforcement of the obligatory hijab law.
Since then, Iranian girls and women have taken to the streets with the slogan “women, life, liberty”, in open defiance of the mullahs running Iran. They have burned headscarves, cut their hair – forbidden by some Islamic authorities – challenged armed security forces and posted videos on social media.
Now in its eighth week despite a bloody crackdown, the “women’s revolution” shows no sign of going away. About 14,000 protesters have been arrested, of whom 1,000 have been charged with crimes, some punishable by death. Javaid Rehman, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, told the UN security council last month the security forces had killed at least 277 people.
Alinejad, 45, a journalist and activist, is a thorn in the side of the Iranian regime, those she calls “ignorant clerics” who accuse her of being a foreign agent and have warned that anyone sending her videos of protests – which she relays on social media – will be jailed.
In Iran, her 70-year-old mother has been threatened, her brother arrested, and her sister paraded on television to denounce her. In New York, where Alinejad has been living in exile since 2009, the FBI has charged four people with allegedly plotting to kidnap her. In August, police arrested a man loitering around her Brooklyn home and found a loaded AK-47 in his car. She and her husband, Kambiz Foroohar, a former Bloomberg reporter, are now in their eighth safe house.
“It’s at least eight,” says Foroohar. “We’ve lost count. It’s mind-blowing.”
At the five-star luxury hotel in Paris where the couple are staying – by invitation of the Elysée – a strapping security guard is keeping a not-so discreet eye on Alinejad. The French police protection is only slightly less obtrusive.
“When the Islamic Republic is in power nobody is safe,” she says. “When the FBI came to my house one year ago and said your life is in danger, I couldn’t take it seriously. Iranians receive death threats every day. But they showed me some photos of my life, of my stepson, my husband, me inside my house, in my garden when I was watering my sunflowers …
“I am not scared. I feel guilty when I talk about my personal life because people [in Iran] are being killed in the streets. Mine is just a tiny example of the brutality of this murderous regime and this is not about me. I’m just giving voice to brave Iranian women and men who are saying no to the Islamic Republic.
“It’s not scary for me to get shot or killed, what is scary is seeing leaders of democratic countries shaking the hand of those who kill my people or those who want to kill me.”
She says the Iranian leader, Ali Khamenei, should be treated like Vladimir Putin. “Khamenei is helping Putin … all the dictators are united so the leaders of democratic countries should be united.
Alinejad’s frail, birdlike appearance disguises a raw fury. She can keep up an almost seamless tirade that veers from rage to near tears. She keeps a lid on both extremes; the triangular frown on her forehead and faltering voice are instantly disguised with a smile.
She is particularly furious that while railing against the west, members of the Iranian regime often seek hospital treatment in Europe and a number of their children study and live in luxury in the US. However, Alinejad reserves particular contempt for western women who bow to Iran’s hijab demands. She will not forgive Karen Pierce, the UK’s ambassador to the UN, for covering her head during a visit to Tehran in 2017.
“It was such an insult to Iranian women who are getting killed for refusing the hijab. You know what an Iranian would do in this position? Say, ‘Fuck you, it’s none of your business’, but these western women go, ‘Sure I’ll cover myself, this is your culture’.
“Oppressing women is not part of our culture, compulsion is not part of our culture, a barbaric law is not part of our culture. When western female politicians say the compulsory hijab is the culture of Iranian women or the women of Afghanistan, this is an insult to our nations.”
Alinejad says she is not campaigning for Iran to ban the hijab, but for women and girls to have the choice of whether to wear it or not. “When I started campaigning people would ask why I was making such a fuss about a small piece of cloth. The compulsory hijab is not about a small piece of cloth. It can get you lashes, it can get you imprisonment, it can get you raped and killed.”
She adds: “The compulsory hijab is like the Berlin Wall: once it falls the whole Islamic Republic will be done. That’s why the mullahs are scared. Millions of girls and women in Iran are now standing shoulder to shoulder and saying no; we are ready to die, but we won’t live with this humiliation.”
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