The fashion police really do exist in Iran. Since 1979, women exposing too much hair, revealing anything resembling a womanly curve, or wearing too much make-up can be thrown in jail. When current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ran for office in 2005, he denounced this practice, questioning whether Iranian politics should focus on ‘two strands of women’s hair or fighting poverty, creating jobs, and implementing justice’. Once elected, however, his tone changed, and a new code of conduct that prohibited women from showing off too much hair or make-up, and men from sporting ‘Western’ haircuts, short pants, and sleeveless T-shirts in public caused 2,000 students to protest in the city of Shiraz. Perhaps a more sarcastic objection, however, came from the spirited journalist Masih Alinejad, who irked the Iranian leader when she asked if he had already fought poverty, created jobs and implemented justice, thus freeing up more time for scrutinizing skirts.
Stirring up trouble is nothing new for Alinejad. In fact, she likens journalism in Iran to ‘putting your hand in the mouth of a lion’. A writer for ILNA (the Iranian Labour News Agency), she has been in and out of court for expressing her views and writing the news, and in 2005, she made international headlines after she revealed that although they claimed they were receiving pay cuts, ministers in Iran’s Government had in fact been receiving bonuses for everything from serving ‘religious duties’ to ringing in the New Year. Initially, politicians accused her of stealing their payslips to collect information, but when a deputy belonging to the minority reformist faction confirmed that it was he who had provided Alinejad with the information, ministers then resorted to character defamation to eject her from Parliament.
‘They called me rude and obnoxious,’ she states. ‘But the worst thing is they called me a coquette. Flirtatious.’ Although this may seem almost comic to Westerners, in Iran such name-calling can have disastrous effects. ‘My brother had to come to my workplace to protect my family’s reputation, and to beg for me to not be fired,’ she says.
Journalists from around the world rallied to her defence, but the pressure, accusations, and condemnation surrounding her eventually had a profound effect on her personal life and led to her leaving Iran, at least for a while. ‘I was married with a son,’ she says quietly. ‘But I am divorced now’.
Under such circumstances, many people would withdraw into self-pity, or at least admit defeat. Not so Masih Alinejad. Immediately, she began working on a book called Crown of Thorns (the title is an allusion to the fact that Masih is Farsi for Christ). It deals with how and why the conservative parliament was elected in Iran in 2004 by a landslide, and how it has performed since. It’s also a reminder that the political can be personal, as Alinejad reveals the impact Iranian politics has had on her life.
Despite its heavy content, the book’s tone, and indeed, its author, is optimistic. ‘Two out of three people in Iran are young (under 30), and many of them have travelled to Europe or the United States. Also, there may be censorship in Iran, but there are ways of getting around that,’ she says with a cheeky smile.
Unlike many people from the Majority World, Alinejad does not necessarily see the US or globalization as forces for bad, and believes that dialogue and negotiation are the only ways forward to improve relations between Iran and the US. ‘Politicians in my country who call America the Great Satan are no better than George Bush when he talks about the Axis of Evil,’ she states. In fact, when one Member of Parliament began his speeches by crying out ‘Death to America!’ it was Alinejad who insisted he think long and hard about the kind of international impact his statements might have.
International impact is something Alinejad hopes to have herself. ‘I came to London to study English so I can meet people like me, who are interested in world politics, and so I can write about Iran in a more international language. I also want to help in the translation of Crown of Thorns, and to try to get my new book published. It’s called I’m Free and it is about the everyday struggles and victories of Iranian women’. Her stay here has not been easy, however.
‘Every day I feel lonely. I miss my family and I miss being at home in Tehran. A few days ago I was really sad to hear that more of my colleagues were put in jail.’ She finds the language barrier frustrating at times: ‘English is very hard to learn! I’m studying every day, but it is difficult!’ Despite the struggles and disappointments, she remains confident she will overcome whatever obstacles life throws in her path.