Masih Alinejad: “We must isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran just as we isolated Putin”

Masih Alinejad We must isolate the Islamic Republic of Iran

Four years ago, in a talk given at Stanford, Masih Alinejad announced “the women’s revolution” in Iran. “Nobody believed me at the time,” recalls the Iranian opponent. It is clear that time has proven him right. In 2014, this journalist exiled in the United States launched the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom (My stealthy freedom), on which she broadcasts videos received from Iran where women reveal themselves in public, even for a few moments. An absolute taboo in Iran where the wearing of the veil has been compulsory since 1983. But after the death of the young Mahsa Amini, in mid-September, following her arrest for a badly worn veil, the Iranians multiplied the demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Enough to bring down the regime? Masih Alinejad wants to believe it. “For a long time, I was desperate, every day I cried. But today I feel that this revolution is accelerating.” Her hair worn high and proud, always with a pinned flower, a dark dress where the only touch of color is a pin bearing the lion of pre-Islamic Iran, this woman with an energetic personality has tears welling up in her eyes when it evokes the demonstrators killed.

Coming to Paris at the invitation of the association Justice for Kurds, she is accompanied by three other emblematic militants of the movement: Shima Babaie, a former political prisoner in Iran, and one of the first to have been arrested there for having followed the campaigns of Masih Alinejad; Ladan Boroumand, head of a human rights NGO; and Roya Pirayi, whose mother was killed by authorities at the start of recent protests. According to a latest report from the NGO Iran Human Rights Watch, at least 326 people have lost their lives since the start of the uprising, including 43 children and 25 women. According to Iranian judicial figures, more than 2,000 people have been charged for their participation in the movement. Foreign NGOs estimate that up to 15,000 Iranians have been arrested.

Masih Alinejad is today one of the opponents most targeted by Tehran, which reacted strongly to her meeting with the French president. This last called Monday, November 14 to targeted sanctions against regime figures with responsibility for the repression. He also insisted on his support for these dissidents. Born in Iran, Masih Alinejad began her career as a parliamentary journalist, where she faced the mullahs, often challenging them head-on. In 2009, she decided to go into exile. Her brother, who still lives in Iran, spent two years in prison, without a clear reason. Masih has had to live under police protection since she was the subject of a kidnapping attempt in 2018. In July 2022, a man with an AK-47 was arrested outside her home. Followed by millions of subscribers on social networks, the activist also has her detractors, who accuse her of endangering women in Iran, and of seeking to gain too much political weight. L’Express met her in Paris.

Why this visit to France?

Masih Alinejad I was, like millions of Iranians, heartbroken when I saw Emmanuel Macron shaking hands with Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi [en marge de l’Assemblée de l’ONU le 21 septembre dernier], while at the same time Iranians were being killed in the street. Admittedly, I know that France is a nation of diplomacy but it also represents the spirit of the revolution and freedom of expression. Today in Iran people are dying for these causes. This is what I ask of the French president and his allies: stop negotiating with the Islamic regime, recognize the voice of the Iranians in the opposition, put the Revolutionary Guards [organisation paramilitaire] on the list of terrorist organizations, recall ambassadors and expel diplomats and officials of the Islamic Republic. We cannot bury human rights under the pretext of the nuclear agreement!

However, the country has been banned from nations for several years and under international sanctions: how can Western countries increase their pressure?

Iran was not so isolated until now: for years, Western countries shook hands with successive Iranian presidents, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Rohani, Ebrahim Raisi, while taking for cash the illusory discourse that claims that this regime can be reformed from within. Today, Generation Z, Generation TikTok, are shouting at us that the time for pseudo-reform is over, the people no longer want to hear about “Islamic Republic”, only about dignity and freedom. We must isolate the Islamic Republic just as we isolated Putin. By facing arms, the people of Iran are not only saving themselves, they are saving the very idea of ​​democracy. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei helps Vladimir Putin in his war against Ukraine by sending drones against innocent Ukrainians. Khamenei and his gang of killers are everywhere, in Iraq, in Syria, in the whole region. I am not asking Westerners to save us, but to stop saving this Islamic regime. The western world must stand with freedom fighters who care about democracy. A democratic and secular Iran will make the world much safer.

There is exceptional unity in the country, between men and women, between generations, between different ethnic minorities. What has Mahsa Amini’s death changed?

Mahsa Amini’s brutal death is a turning point for Iranian women and men alike, who are protesting together in the streets. The Islamic Republic is afraid of us. For years they have tried to instill fear in society. Now the Islamic Republic is afraid of its own people. A people who are united like never before. For years, authorities have accused and killed Kurds, labeling them “separatists”, instilling fear in others. Everyone said to themselves “don’t get involved, we are not Kurds”. They executed Jews, Baluchis, Arabs… and each time people said to themselves “this does not concern us”. But when they killed Mahsa, everyone said, “We are Mahsa.”

Masih Alinejad in Paris on November 11, 2022

Masih Alinejad in Paris on November 11, 2022

Charlotte Krebs for L’Express

You have been fighting against the regime for years. How do you explain that this uprising is happening now?

Today’s uprising has been built for years by all ordinary women who, through small gestures, have pushed the boundaries of this gender apartheid regime. With all this anger building up, when Mahsa was killed, people were ready to speak out in the streets. Because Mahsa was not part of a political organization, she did not protest, she was not even exposed. Her death created a great sense of unity – mothers or fathers, thinking this could have happened to their daughter. It was no longer just about political activists, those against compulsory veiling. It could happen to anyone, anytime, whether you say no to the veil, to the Islamic system, or not. Let’s not forget that this whole movement started in Kurdistan because Mahsa Amini was a Kurdish girl. When I saw the videos from Kurdistan, where the people were not just mourning but where the women were waving their veils, I thought to myself that this could spread in the country, and suddenly it was… In my opinion, the two reasons for the current uprising are the growing frustration for years, and then the fact that Mahsa was an ordinary girl, who was not part of any form of protest.

The Iranian repressive system is still as strong as ever. Do you think the security forces can turn against the regime?

This is our dream, and I still believe that the regime is still reluctant to ask the army to go to the streets and kill people, because the leaders don’t think the army can kill children. That’s why it’s mainly the Revolutionary Guards [armée parallèle du régime] and the bassidjis [milice], in civilian clothes, who are there to brutally kill children, adolescents, women. We, the activists, opposition figures and human rights defenders, we call on the army to stop supporting the regime. For the first time in our history, renowned athletes, actors and actresses say they no longer want to work with this regime and stand with the people of Iran. When Taraneh Alidousti, a popular actress, posts a photo of herself where she takes off her veil, it’s like an earthquake. Why did she do this? Because she can’t ignore the schoolgirls who started this revolution. It can no longer continue to normalize the Islamic Republic. When she walks on the red carpet with the Islamic veil, she makes the world believe that it is our “culture”. But that’s not our culture!

Since 2014, you had launched several movements inviting Iranian women to post videos online, #MyStealthyFreedom, #WhiteWednesdays, #MyCameraMyWeapon. Do you think a revolution can be started through social media?

The current revolution is not a social media revolution. It happens in the field, but social networks are our weapon. They represent one of the most powerful means against a State which has arms, money, oil. Me, I don’t have any weapons, I only weigh 45 kilos, why are they sending people to New York to kill me? Why did they put my brother in prison for two years? Why did they make a law to punish anyone who sends me videos with ten years in prison? Because they are afraid of social networks. They are not afraid of me, but of the voice of the Iranians which finds an echo through me. In recent weeks, we have seen videos of teenagers who launched their own movement to remove the mullahs’ turbans in the street. In truth, the mullahs and clerics believed themselves untouchable for years. But they are forced to hear today the message of teenagers: “You kill us but we have no respect for your turbans.”

Masih Alinejad in Paris on November 11, 2022

Masih Alinejad in Paris on November 11, 2022

Charlotte Krebs for L’Express

How can a democratic Iran emerge from the current situation?

The revolution in Iran is accelerating: it is the beginning of the end for the Islamic Republic. Iranian leaders have two options, either kill more people, which will only create more anger. Either get rid of the obligation to wear the veil, of the morality police, which will lead to the fall of the system anyway, because this obligatory veil constitutes the main pillar of this dictatorship. The West says it doesn’t want to interfere, but you interfere when you go to Iran and when, for example, the highest representatives of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, Federica Mogherini… put on the veil, and thus validated their vision of the female body. You are interfering because a war is going on, a war that the Islamic Republic has been waging against women for forty years. And you choose your side, putting on the veil, submitting to the regime, negotiating with Tehran, legitimizing them. You choose to ignore civil society, to ignore dissidents, to ignore the opposition. Many tell me “You don’t have a united opposition”, but that’s not true. What separates the opposition is this regime, which kills us, puts us in prison or forces us into exile. And you accuse us, the victims? We are united on the issue of bringing down the regime. We now want Western democratic leaders to be with us.

In dates

May 2014: launch of Masih Alinejad’s movement, My furtive freedom

June 2021: election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iranian president

September 2022: death of Masha Amini and start of the uprising