Nobel Prize Nominee and human rights activist Masih Alinejad was interviewed Thursday, Feb. 10
Below is a Q&A of the in-person interview in Washington.
The following is a Q&A of the conversation with Kayhan Life Editor Nazenin Ansari at the National Union for Democracy in Iran (NUFDI) conference in Washington.
Nobel Peace Prize Nomination
NA: Masih, as a journalist, human rights activist you are one of the most recognized voices, names and faces, and certainly, you don’t need any introduction. Others have talked about you, Sheryl Sandberg, for one. She commended you for building a platform to bring Iranian women’s voices to the international scene and to allow the international community to have a chance to see another side of life.
NA: And you’ve also been recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize you follow in the footsteps of, of course, Dr. Shirin Ebadi who won the Nobel Peace Prize, and also let’s not forget Mrs. Narges Mohammadi who only recently had got herself after a five-minute trial, another eight years in prison and one of the charges according to a Iranian human rights organization was being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
NA: Let’s not forget you’ve got your own name on a congressional senate resolution and it’s called the Masih Alinejad [harassment and unlawful targeting] act of 2021. You were a victim of transnational kidnapping plots. But when you were accepting your Nobel nomination, you said that you have to stop gender apartheid in Iran, and for a lot of young Iranian Americans for a lot of Iranian girls they cannot understand what gender apartheid means. So can you explain to us what it means?
Gender Apartheid in Iran
MA: First of all, such an introduction! Thank you so much. [Addresses the audience in Persian.] I’m so happy being among all the amazing people here. And I have to say that when they say what gender apartheid means, I don’t want to go further and talk about what happened to women after the revolution, let’s just talk about what happened to us five days ago. Five days ago, a 17-year-old girl was beheaded by her husband who I cannot even call her husband, because the Sharia laws in Iran allowed her to get married with her cousin at the age of 14. So for me, this is not just an honor killing happening by family, the honor killings are being supported by Sharia laws in Iran. This is called gender apartheid.
MA: The revolution after like 42 years, was supposed to help people. But now as you mentioned, Shirin Ebadi made an apology for being involved in the revolution. I was only two years old, two years old. And I want to say that the revolution itself became a revolution against women. I asked many people in Iran what was the reason? What was the reason? What was your feeling that you felt that instead of reforming you asked for revolution? Many people said we needed more political freedom. What happened? We didn’t gain any political freedom. We lost all the social freedom that we already had. We had so many, you know, singers in Iran who all left in Iran because women are banned from singing. Women are banned from choosing what they want to wear. Women are banned from travelling abroad or getting passports without getting permission from their husband. Women are banned from all their basic rights so all the laws in Iran are against women. That is why I called it gender apartheid.
MA: Many people in the West maybe when they see my campaign against compulsory hijab, Nazenin, they always keep saying that…
MA: First of all, why don’t I see Rob Malley here? Yeah, this conference is about Iran. Honestly, I was expecting to see Rob Malley, or people from Secretary Blinken’s office who care about Iran. This is about Iran. [Audience claps] They are talking to our oppressors. We are the victims of gender apartheid. You go and negotiate with our oppressors but you don’t want to listen to us? I hope they listen to me right now. Many people in the West, they say that, you know, why do you care about hijab so much? We have so many bigger problems in the Middle East. I have to say that compulsory hijab is the main pillar of a gender apartheid regime. Compulsory hijab is a flag for Islamism for Taliban and the Islamic Republic. To me, compulsory hijab is like the Berlin Wall. And that is why I say that if we tear this wall down, then gender apartheid won’t exist. So that’s the reason that I picked up compulsory hijab because I strongly believe that this is the first step toward human dignity. A lot of people say there are so many bigger problems in the Middle East. I say what is bigger than human dignity? [Audience claps]
NA: We were in a conference together with Mrs. Fatemeh Sepehri. She’s a veiled lady from Khorasan and she lost her husband in the Iran-Iraq war. And she’s now one of the proponents of women’s rights issues in Iran. Why? Even though she has failed, because she lost the guardianship of her children, of her child, when her husband died, and I remember that you yourself in divorce when you got divorced in Iran, you lost your the guardianship of your child. You face as a little girl in school being forced to wear the hijab. If [girls] don’t, they will be marked for a long time like you were marked in Iran.
NA: As far as laws, I am very lucky to have been born before the revolution, but also very unlucky, because I saw what it was that happened, we had as far as women’s rights were concerned, in 1974, 75. For your information, we had the equal rights amendment, equal pay for equal work, when even the United States women till now don’t have it. So these are the things that we lost. And if we say, if you say the revolution was anti women, you’re right, because the first woman that was executed was Mrs. Farrokhroo Parsa, who was the Minister of Education, and her crime, as they stated, was prostitution and embezzling of state funds.
Human rights campaigns in Iran
NA: So now let’s move beyond hijab. You have, you have created a lot of campaigns, “White Wednesday” campaign, “My Weapon Is My Camera,” but also you moved beyond that to organising a lot of campaigns for sports people, for artists, for even the [victims of the] Ukrainian flight, for mothers who had lost their children in the Aban 2019. Tell us a little more about that.
MA: To be honest, I have to say that, I don’t want to say that I created a campaign. The movement exists in Iran. What is missing here, they don’t have any media. And I remember I mean, I didn’t have any, a lot of people think that I planned to launch the campaign against compulsory hijab but I’m going to be very honest with you. I just talked about my own story. I just share about my pain. I just talked about how I learned from my pain to be powerful. And that actually encouraged many women within the society to get united. So because the Iranian regime survives when they see that people are scared, the biggest reason that they survive, it’s the fear. So I help women like me to overcome the fear because I was scared most of my life. But I mean, because of political pressure because of social pressure, family pressure, I had to start my own revolution from my family’s kitchen. So what I did, I actually started to talk to women. Be your own savior instead of waiting for someone to come and save you. I learned from my people, those who joined me to give them a platform.
MA: I remember that when the head of the Revolutionary Guard says that, no, sorry, the head of the revolutionary court, appeared on TV and said that if anyone sent videos to Masih they should be charged with up to 10 years in prison I was shocked. And I felt a burden, a guiltiness about what I’m going to do. I just went on TV and I said that this is it, because I don’t want to get anyone into trouble. What happened? Many mothers who lost a beloved one in Iran protests held the pictures of their beloved one, they went to the same street that their children got killed, got shot in the head, in the chest, saying Masih we want you to be our voice. They have a powerful voice within society but they want us to echo their voices. So I created a different campaign like for when Naveed Afkari got executed. Naveed was an amazing wrestler, a champion in Iran. He knew what he was doing but he got executed. I was miserable. You know I actually was in my garden when I heard the news and I was furious. I was crying. I was helpless. What came to my mind was that I have to get all the people who are like Naveed, part of the national team, to get united.
MA: I went to them and I said, I mean I was always saying to myself that in Iran women are allowed to go to stadiums and enjoy you know, football or supporting their national team in the twenty-first century. A woman set herself on fire just because she wanted to support her national team, her favorite team. I was saying to myself that FIFA should ban Iran, should boycott Iran, but no one listened to me so I asked the athletes to join me. So I created a campaign called “United for Naveed.” So all the brave heroes who were part of the Iranian national team for years and years were now saying that this is the twenty-first century.
MA: Let me give you an example. President Biden had to get back and look himself when he was really young. He was supporting the idea of banning [South Africa’s] apartheid, you remember that? He was supporting the ban because of apartheid. So we are suffering from gender apartheid in Iran. What is different when we talk about banning Islamic Republic from everywhere and recognizing civil society? They say either you are supporting the war or either supporting the deal. This is wrong.
MA: I am carrying the scars of the wounds on my shoulder. Two of my brothers were in jail during the war. I am a victim of war. Now you are labelling us and many activists here and I see Ladan Boroumand and many highly respected human rights activists [here]. You yourself, you’re being labelled that you’re supporting war when you say ban Iranian football until women of Iran are allowed to go to a stadium. Stand up against gender apartheid and listen to the voice of the mothers who lost their beloved ones in Iran. Those who are calling Qassem Soleimani a hero… he was a war monger. I know that I’m furious, because I really wanted to see Rob Malley here. I wanted to see the new administration here. When we talk about the human rights, women’s rights, it should be bipartisan.
MA: I criticised President Trump. I criticised President Biden as well, because this is the reason that they came to America. My dream was to have freedom of expression in America. And now I see that Ilhan Omar, all those policy makers in America, they’re being misguided by some think tanks here who are the Iran lobbies being the voice of Iranian government, rather than being the voice of Iranian people? That makes me furious.
MA: And let’s be furious. Because many people in Iran, they’re looking at you now. And they see that in twenty-first century all the European countries, they dare to go and talk to our oppressors. They allow the children of Ayatollahs to come here, but they refuse to give visas to the families of the victims in Iran. All the Ayatollahs who say, “Death to America,” even those who are involved in hostage taking have their relatives here. Or here in America regular [they are guests] on CNN, where is CNN here? Where’s Barbara Slavin? I am the voice of Iranian people, many of us here being away from our families, it makes me furious and frustrated when I see a 17 year-old-girl was was beheaded and didn’t make a headline.
MA: But Ilhan Omar’s legislation about Islamophobia made a huge headline as a woman who grew up under Sharia laws. Yes, I am scared of Islamic ideology. Millions of women in Afghanistan they deserve and they have the right to be scared of Taliban and Islamism. I challenge and dare Ilhan Omar and many of those left and liberals to come and sit here and listen to the voice of the Iranian people. If you’re really looking for stability in the region, you cannot go and have a negotiation with one of the most unstable regimes. You have to recognize civil society and those who dare to say no to gender apartheid.
Women’s rights in Afghanistan
NA: And you talked about Afghanistan, and certainly you have a campaign, “Let Us Talk” that has taken the issue beyond Iran to Afghanistan to the entire Middle East. Now, what kind of advice from your experience, from your expertise, do you have for these young women?
MA: I don’t have any advice for women of Afghanistan, they did a great job.
NA: [I mean] You are an expert at what you do.
MA: I have advice for policymakers in America.
NA: But these girls [can’t ]talk.
MA: Yes, the brave women in Afghanistan, they don’t need any advice from me, from none of us in the West. We have to give advice to those in Norway, to those in America who call themselves feminists, liberals and dare to go and negotiate with Taliban. Negotiating with Taliban means you legitimizing one of the most terroristic and barbaric states. We have to give advice to them recently. One of the envoys of Afghanistan went to have a negotiation with Taliban. She wore hijab. Women in Afghanistan say no to compulsory hijab. She was not forced to wear hijab. And then she wanted to defend the rights of women in Afghanistan.
MA: Americans here, you have a famous saying that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But believe me, what happens in the Middle East, in Iran, in Afghanistan doesn’t stay there. It’s going to infect the rest of the world. They came after me to kidnap me here in America. You think it was about me? Believe me, I’m not scared for my life. But the scarier thing is that the Islamic regime tried to challenge the US authorities on US soil and Biden, President Biden, still kept silent. If it was his son, if it was his relative, he would not have been silent.
MA: And I want to tell you something Nazenin, I want to tell you that I was for the deal. I was supporting the deal. I was supporting the reformists, I was working for reformist newspapers in Iran. We all of us know many of us we had even hope for reforms. I had hoped for reforms. I voted for the reformists and I feel ashamed now many people inside Iran voted for reformist people as well. But now hear them, the opposition has shifted. They changed, people have a new message.
MA: Believe me, you have to sit and listen to the voices of the mothers inside Iran. A mother whose son, Pejman Alipour, only a 18 years old received five bullets in his chest. She is the true voice of the Iranian opposition saying no to the Islamic Republic.
MA: Pouya Bakhtiari, his mother, she was there while her son got killed in front of her eyes. She says no to the Islamic Republic and she received attacks. Her house was vandalized by the Islamic Republic recently. So what I say here, instead of listening to the lobbies, listen to the voice of Iranian people within society. Whether you help us or support us, or not, we’re going to get rid of the Islamic Republic one day. But the history will tell you we don’t have much time left.
NA: We don’t have much time left but recently I saw very interesting statistics that in the past few years, the intelligence organs of Iran have multiplied five by five by five, so right now we’ve got between 17 to 20 different security organs controlling the people.
NA: Having said that, there was a panel today where Ladan Boroumand was mentioning about the increasing number of protests. And there was also a secret document that was brought out by the hacktivist [Ali’s Justice], that actually one of the officers there was saying that society is in a state of explosion, and that only in the past year, it has seen an increase of protests by 50% and the number of protesters has nearly doubled in each of them.
NA: Certainly Iranian teachers, pensioners, investors, worker workers, you name it, even prison guards, they’ve been protesting in rallies across Iran in more than 100 cities. If you go to Kayhan London’s [website] we have all the videos with all their slogans. So we see a repeat, let’s just say, if we see a repeat of 2019, I remember I go back to 2009. At that time, you were waiting to interview President Obama.
MA: He lost the chance. [Audience laughs.]
NA: Well, you lost the chance, yes, definitely, and so did a lot of Iranian people lose the chance. Like Neda Agha-Soltan, who also lost her life and then we come back to 2019. We have the Aban protests, the internet gets shut down again. 2020, Secretary Blinken, even before he was elected, he retweeted a tweet that if there’s a repeat of 2019 What should be done, and it was silence. Now given your position now, your network with tech companies, with US officials, congress MEPs, European parliament, if there is a repeat of 2019 which everybody’s expecting at some point, what will be your advice? What tools would fit their needs?
MA: So first of all, I want to actually tell the story about the people of Iran and Obama. I know I don’t have much time, but I’m going to be quick. I had a meeting with Jake Sullivan and Secretary Blinken and Secretary Pompeo as well. And I said in front of them, that the Iranian people in the streets were chanting Obama you are either with us or with them, because Obama in Persian means that he is with us. ‘Oo” means he, ‘bahm” is with, and “noh” means us. So the people of Iran had a hope that he is going to be with us. But at the same time when people in the streets were calling him, Obama [sent a secret letter] to Ayatollah Khomeini.
MA: I actually met with the officials in America and I asked them that how do you feel now? Hillary Clinton said regret. And I asked Jake Sullivan whether he’s going to support Iranian people, he said that we have to stick with our policy to get the deal. And what I want to say here is that you see that Iranian people didn’t get any help from anywhere, anyone, but still they’re saying we don’t want the Islamic Republic.
MA: So you are going to lose the chance to support Iranian people. My advice is so clear, that the Iranian people are going to move on. When the Iran protests happened in the street, the internet was shut down for I think more than 10 days. They killed 1,500 people guess who was present on social media? All the ayatollahs, all the officials and all their lobbyists, trying to mislead the rest of the world, calling the people of Iran in the streets hooligans.
MA: And at that time, I called all the tech companies, [and said] you have to kick Khamenei off Twitter, you have to take all the officials out from social media. They said that in the name of freedom of speech we’re not going to do that.
MA: To all the human rights activists: when people of Iran are united, outside Iran we have to be really tough with the tech companies and get united. Iran, look, Russia, China, Venezuela, Turkey, Taiwan, Islamic Republic, all the dictators are united. They are more united than us, the freedom fighters. We the human rights activists from different countries should get united as well and ask all the tech companies to kick out Putin, ayatollahs, the Taliban, and all the dictators from social media until the day that Iranian people are allowed to use the same social media. Is that too much to ask? It’s not. Thank you so much. [Audience claps]
NA: Thank you very much for your attention, and for staying here and listening to us.Thank you, Masih.