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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Iranian-American feminist activist Masih Alinejad speaks at Democracy Summit

The exiled dissident who has been called “The Woman Whose Hair Frightens Iran” answered questions and addressed criticism during the talk.

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Last Wednesday, Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad spoke at Filene Auditorium at an event titled “Ending Gender Apartheid in Iran.” The talk was the inaugural event for the Democracy Summit — a student-led series exploring contemporary democracy — and hosted by the  Dartmouth Political Union, the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Dickey Center for International Understanding. 

Alinejad gained worldwide attention in 2014 when she removed her hijab and posted a picture of her hair blowing in the wind on Facebook. Since then, Alinejad has become a popular symbol and figure of dissent against the Islamic regime. 

Alinejad spoke to a crowd of 170, and according to DPU president Jessica Chiriboga ’24, the event was entirely booked in advance. The event was also live-streamed on the College’s YouTube channel. 

Because of her continued outspoken criticism against the Islamic Regime in Iran, Alinejad herself has been targeted in two assassination and kidnapping plots in the United States, Chiriboga said. Security detail was higher than usual for Alinejad’s safety, according to DPU vice president Dylan Griffith ’25. He added that the event involved Safety and Security, the Hanover Police Department and plain-clothed officers.

The event began with an introduction by Chiriboga and Griffith, followed by an interview moderated by Middle Eastern studies lecturer Andrew Simon and an audience question and answer session.

Chiriboga said that Alinejad gained notoriety for the viral My Stealthy Freedom social media campaign against the compulsory hijab in Iran. The campaign, which has almost 11 million followers today, has progressed into the biggest civil disobedience movement in the history of the Islamic republic, Chiriboga added.

“Her activism led her to be kicked out of school, college, parliament and eventually her country in 2009,” Chiriboga said.

Alinejad has continued to dissent against the Iranian government during the current protests in Iran, Chiriboga added. The protests in Iran started last September after the death of Mahsa Amini, who was in police custody for violating the Islamic Republic’s conservative dress code. The Islamic Republic responded violently, killing over 500 people with 50 more on death row since the commencement of the protests, according to Alinejad. 

Alinejad started by thanking all the students in the audience, whom she called “the future of the world.” 

“The women of Iran and Afghanistan, they need you,” she said.

While answering a question about the prominent slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” Alinejad gave an overview of the restrictions women face in Iran. 

“Woman, life, freedom — it is a crime. Being a free woman in Iran means you are a criminal,” Alinejad said. “From the age of seven, if you are a girl and you don’t cover your hair, you won’t be able to go to school.” 

Alinejad said that the rules of the Islamic Regime made her a “master criminal” because she has “too much hair, too much voice and [is] too much of a woman.” She also emphasized the influence of social media on protest movements, calling it “a weapon… of ordinary people,” as it  turned Amini’s funeral into “massive protests against the Islamic Republic.”

When Simon asked Alinejad about how social media can be used by repressive and democratic forces, Alinejad added that she felt that dictators are now using social media to attack dissidents, normalize oppressive regimes and mislead the rest of the world. 

“The Iranian regime used social media to publish videos of women, inviting some tourists from Western countries to show that people like [me] are lying because people are unveiled and walking in the streets, not getting arrested or harassed in public,” Alinejad added. 

In an  interview after the event, Alinejad said she disregarded news of Iran abolishing the morality police. 

“Dictators know that when they are weakened and shaken it’s time to spread misinformation and disinformation to calm down the protests and mislead the rest of the world,” Alinejad said. 

Alinejad maintained that the next necessary step is for Western countries to unite against and isolate the Islamic Republic, which she said “is a threat to democracy and freedom in the region.” 

“I want [the] Western [governments] to be as brave as [the] women of Iran and Afghanistan,” Alinejad said during the event. 

Simon asked Alinejad to comment on critiques of economic sanctions as measures that exert more damage to ordinary Iranians rather than oppressive government officials.

“Right after the nuclear deal, we witnessed the money being sent to fund violence in the region,” Alinejad said. “The Iranian regime, even under sanctions, increased the budget for 51 religious institutions, including the morality police.”

The audience question and answer session included the perspectives of some students who opposed her views and beliefs. One female student from Afghanistan said that Alinejad’s act of removing the hijab, waving it in the air and burning it discriminated against the student’s values. 

“My dream is to walk shoulder to shoulder with you in Iran and in Afghanistan — me, unveiled — without getting killed,” Alinejad said in response. “We are all fighting for freedom of choice.”

Alinejad ended the event with an Iranian song and translated the lyrics to English when they finished.

“God, if you don’t give me what I want, I can burn the whole world,” Alinejad translated. 

Armita Mirkarimi ’25, who is Iranian-American, said that the event was especially powerful for her because she has followed Alinejad’s career in activism since she was a young girl, having migrated from Iran to the US when she was in third grade. 

“I think it’s really important that students here at Dartmouth hear that voice because it’s a voice that is a lot of times oppressed and not talked about,” Mirkarimi said. “I really respect what she has to say as an activist and especially with everything happening in Iran right now with the protests, the social movements [and] the death of Mahsa Amini.” 

Carter Anderson ’26 said that the event underscored the value of free speech, as Alinejad was persecuted for speaking out against the government in Iran.

“I think it’s rare that you get the opportunity to interact with a journalist who has really had her free speech infringed, especially coming from the US,” Anderson said. “Free speech is often taken for granted and I don’t think that’s true globally. It’s interesting to see that perspective.”

Armita Mirkarimi is a former member of The Dartmouth’s Arts staff.