When Masih Alinejad posted a picture of herself online jumping in the air in a sunny, tree-lined London street, the journalist hoped to cheer up readers weary of her stories of grim human rights cases in her native Iran.
She did not expect what followed: a Facebook phenomenon that gained half a million followers in a month and scathing, personal criticism by Iranian state television, accusing her of drug addiction, perversion and insanity.
Inspired by Alinejad’s photo, taken in a public place with her hair showing without the Islamic veil that is obligatory in Iran, thousands of women inside Iran uploaded their own self-portraits to a page she hastily set up and called: “My Stealthy Freedom.”
“To me, it was like a virtual demonstration on my Facebook page,” the 37-year-old told Reuters in an interview, seeming genuinely astonished to find herself the figurehead of a campaign against Iran’s restrictions on women’s dress.
A political journalist who already had 200,000 Facebook followers before posting her selfie, she set up the separate “My Stealthy Freedom” to prevent her own page becoming swamped by women wanting to share their pictures.
“Look,” she says, opening her laptop at a London cafe to show the most recent photo uploaded. “That was posted four minutes ago, and already has 439 likes and 11 shares.”
Born two years before the Islamic Revolution that brought down the Western-backed Shah in 1979 and ushered in Iran’s hybrid of democracy and religious rule, Alinejad is too young to remember her country before women were obliged to wear the veil.
As then, she says, many people underestimate the importance of the obligatory veil, saying there are far more pressing political issues. But she maintains that forcing a woman to cover her hair is the state’s way of stamping its authority.