When demonstrations erupted in Iran last fall over the death of a woman who didn’t wear a hijab, protesters turned to Masih Alinejad to get their voices out to the world.
For the past eight years, the Iranian-American author and journalist has been at the forefront of a campaign that encourages women and girls to defy Iran’s mandatory hijab law.
Since September, she has published dozens of videos on her social media accounts exposing human-rights abuses by authorities during the protests sparked by 22-year-old Mahsa Amini dying in police custody. She also posts footage of Iranian women removing their head scarves – powerful images of defiance that have so angered the regime that it has threatened to punish those who send Ms. Alinejad recordings of the demonstrations.
Her actions have made her a target of the Islamic Republic, and threats to her life have forced her to live in hiding indefinitely. But she refuses to back down.
“I have to keep amplifying the voice of the Iranian people. … The volume of messages and videos that I am being sent from inside Iran has only increased since September,” she told The Globe and Mail. “People are getting killed in the streets, teenagers are facing guns and bullets, and women are being raped in prison.”
The activist, who has more than eight million followers on Instagram, has been in exile in the United States since 2015. She currently lives in an FBI safe house, after an alleged assassination attempt. In July, 2022, police arrested a man with a loaded AK-47 assault rifle and almost 100 rounds of ammunition outside her former home in Brooklyn, New York. The suspect and two other members of an Eastern European criminal gang, reportedly recruited by the Iranian regime, were charged late last month in a murder-for-hire plot targeting Ms. Alinejad.
It was not the first time she had come under threat on U.S. soil. She was also the target of a kidnapping attempt linked to Iranian intelligence officials in July, 2021. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, that thwarted plan involved taking Ms. Alinejad by sea to Venezuela, and then bringing her to Iran for imprisonment and perhaps execution.
“It was shocking that my birth country was trying to kidnap me.” says Ms. Alinejad, who is a member of the Human Rights Foundation’s International Council. “However, it was heartwarming that my adopted country was trying to protect me.”
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Ms. Alinejad’s criticism of the Islamic Republic includes calling the government a group of “ignorant clerics” who she says try to silence her through intimidation. Her family members still in Iran have also been subject to such tactics. In 2020, her brother, Ali Alinejad, was reportedly sentenced to eight years in prison after intelligence agents detained him and questioned him about her activities. He was released on parole in August, 2021, on the condition that he not contact his sister again, she told The Globe.
In 2019, Ms. Alinejad sued the Iranian government in U.S. federal court for harassing her and her family.
“We, the people of Iran, are risking our lives speaking out against the regime, but we won’t be successful if the leaders of democratic countries don’t join and unite with us to kick out the Islamic Republic,” Ms. Alinejad told The Globe. “We need to call on ambassadors to end this regime and to recognize the revolution that is going on in Iran.”
She has made that appeal directly to G7 leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden. In January, she met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when she visited Toronto under police protection to attend an event commemorating Ms. Amini and other victims who have died in the current crackdown.
Canada has imposed sanctions on Iranian officials and designated Iran “as a regime that has engaged in terrorism and systematic and gross human-rights violations.” While Ms. Alinejad says such moves are a step forward, she believes real progress can only be achieved if countries list the Islamic Republic as a terrorist organization.
“The Islamic Republic is not just a threat to Iran, it is a threat to democracy and democratic nations because right now the Islamic Republic is sending drones to Putin to kill innocent Ukranians. It’s not enough to call for a change in the regime – but a regime change.”
The Iranian regime has taken everything from its people except for hope, she said.
“The more this regime kills, the more people are determined to take this regime down. For me and for millions of Iranians, this is a revolution – and I believe it is the beginning of the end of the Islamic Republic. With or without the help of democratic countries like Canada, we will bring this regime down. But with the help of these nations less people – less children – will be killed. The Iranian people are ready to see a country without the Islamic Republic.”