Even if you haven’t been closely following the protests that have been happening in Iran since last September, you have probably still seen the determined face of Masih Alinejad on a number of news networks over the past eight months.
The determined face—and the unruly mane of hair.
The 46-year-old Iranian-American journalist and human rights activist has been relentlessly bringing attention to the human rights abuses that have been occurring in Iran since the death of Mahsa Amini.
On September 14, 2022, 22-year-old Amini, a Kurdish woman from the northern province of Saqqez, was visiting the capital city of Tehran with her brother when the country’s morality police arrested her. Her crime? They said that she was not wearing her hijab “properly” in accordance with the country’s dress code.
A hijab is a religious headscarf that is mandatory for women and girls (usually starting at age nine) in Iran.
Amini’s death in police custody has sparked nation-wide protests. Women have been burning their hijabs and cutting off their hair in open defiance of the Islamic Republic’s strict hijab laws. Men have also been taking part in the protests.
In retaliation, the authorities have been arresting protesters, imprisoning them, and even carrying out mass executions as punishment for the dissidence.
Many human rights advocates are calling what is happening in Iran a full-blown revolution and some countries such as Canada have imposed a number of sanctions on the IRGC.
Here are ten things you need to know about the activist who has made it her life’s mission to give voice to the women of Iran and to help take down the regime of the Islamic Republic.
1) She is using her social media channels to post about the protests and keep Iran in the spotlight
Alinejad has made her social media channels—particularly Twitter and Instagram where she has a combined eight million followers—a platform for videos of the protests.
The internet is regularly cut off by the government in Iran. Videos of the protests are regularly sent to Alinejad and she posts them to her social media accounts so that the world doesn’t stop seeing the plight of the people of Iran. You can see powerful footage of women openly removing their headscarves.
Not only that, Alinejad also uses her social media to shed light on the police brutality that is happening as peaceful dissidents are constantly targeted—both on the streets and in their homes.
Secret videos of the violence from authorities as well as the arrests also appear on her channels. The regime has threatened punishment to those who send Alinejad recordings.
2) She created a social media campaign that went viral
Around 2009 when she was exiled in London, Alinejad posted a striking image to her Facebook page.
The photograph was one of Alinejad running freely on the streets of London, happy, sans hijab, and with the wind blowing through her curly hair.
She didn’t think much of it, but the image got hundreds of comments from women inside Iran who said they felt envious of Alinejad’s freedom to go without the hijab.
She was touched by the volume of comments and emails and decided to post a picture of herself from when she herself lived in Iran. The images were stealthy ones taken without her wearing the traditional hijab.
It was this Facebook image of her that sparked “My Stealthy Freedom,” a social media campaign that went viral.
3) She has been on the Iranian regime’s radar since she was a teenager
As a journalist, Alinejad has long attracted the condemnation of the Islamic Republic for being outspoken in her criticism against the regime. In the past, she has called the government a group of “ignorant clerics” and the compulsory hijab laws the “Berlin Wall” of the regime.
But her activism actually started in her teenage years when she was growing up in Iran. She was even arrested at one point for her activism on her free speech and speaking out against the compulsory hijab laws.
4) She wrote a memoir about her political dissent against the Islamic Republic
In 2018, Alinejad released her memoir, entitled The Wind in My Hair: My Fight For Freedom in Modern Iran.
In addition to writing about her childhood in Iran and the political journalism and activism that would eventually get her exiled, Alinejad’s memoir talks about finding out that she was pregnant while in police custody.
Upon release, she had to marry quickly but later was served with divorce papers and the shame and embarrassment it caused her religiously conservative family.
Alinejad spent nine years trying to regain custody of her son. She was also forced into exile and lived in London for a time. When she came to the United States, following then-President Trump’s immigration ban, she was separated from her child once again.
5) There have been ongoing assassination attempts on her life
In July 2021, Alinejad was the target of a kidnapping attempt linked to Iranian intelligence officials. The US Department of Justice said at the time that the thwarted plan involved forcibly taking Alinejad to Venezuela by sea, and then bringing her to Iran for imprisonment and perhaps even execution.
This wasn’t the Islamic Republic’s only attempt. A year later in July 2022, police arrested a man with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition outside Alinejad’s home in Brooklyn.
The suspect, alongside two other members of an Eastern European criminal gang which were said to be hired by the Iranian regime, were charged in the murder-for-hire plot against Alinejad.
6) Her family in Iran has also been targeted or imprisoned
In 2018, Alinejad sued the Iranian government in US federal court for harassing both her and her family.
Then in 2020, her brother, Ali Alinejad, was sentenced to eight years in prison after intelligence agents detained and interrogated him about his sister’s political activities. He was released on parole in August 2021 on the condition that he never contact his sister again.
7) She continues to call out human rights abuses in Iran from an FBI safehouse
Alinejad was originally exiled from Iran in 2009 and lived in London for a time, continuing her political work from there. She moved to New York City in 2015 and since the July 2022 assassination attempt, Alinejad has been living in an FBI safehouse in New York.
For her safety, she has to change safehouses every three or four months.
This hasn’t stopped Alinejad’s activism. She feels that what she is going through is nothing compared to what her Iranian countrymen and women are going through.
8) She has met with a number of G7 leaders to compel them to recognize the protests as a revolution
In November 2022, Alinejad met with French President Emmanuel Macron: it was the first meeting between an Iranian opposition figure and the leader of a major power.
In the one-on-one meeting, Alinejad asked Macron to recall France’s ambassador to Iran and to halt any nuclear negotiations until the Iranian authorities ended the crackdowns on the protesters.
She also asked Macron to designate the Islamic Republic as a terrorist organization to push the European Union to do the same.
Then in January 2023, Alinejad met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Toronto at an event commemorating Mahsa Amini and other victims who died in the Iranian police crackdowns.
She said that while she appreciated Canada’s imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and designated the IRGC “as a regime that has engaged in terrorism and systematic and gross human rights violations” that real progress could only be made if countries list the Islamic Republic as a terrorist organization.
In March of this year, Alinejad met with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, urging him to isolate the Islamic Republic and not to meet with the regime’s officials. “I informed him of the torture and rape of minors in prisons of the Islamic Republic,” she said on Twitter.
“I urged the Prime minister to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic. I urged the Prime minister to expel the ambassadors of the Islamic Republic of Iran from the Netherlands, as well as list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. I asked the Dutch government to cut its diplomatic ties.”
9) She has aligned herself with the son of the former Shah of Iran
Alinejad has unified herself with prominent opposition figures against the Islamic Republic including Prince Reza Pahlavi—the oldest son of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran.
Prior to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 that overthrew his father, Reza Pahlavi was the crown prince and last heir apparent to the throne of the Imperial State of Iran.
The exiled prince (he also lives in the US) participates in the Iranian democracy movement and he is a prominent critic of the IRGC.
Alongside other opposition figures, Alinejad and Pahlavi have been presenting a united front at a number of international conferences and events reiterating their determination to see an end to the regime.
10) She was named one of TIME Magazine’s “Women of the Year”
At the beginning of March, Alinejad was named as one TIME Magazine’s 2023 “Most Influential Women”. She was selected alongside 11 other women who the media outlet said are “using their voices to fight for a more equal world.”
“The 12 women featured on this year’s list come from across the globe and have made a significant impact in their respective communities and fields, from activism and government to sports and the arts. Many of them have faced immense challenges that inspired them to push for change.”