Home>Masih Alinejad: “Together, we are stronger than the dictators”

21.10.2022

Masih Alinejad: “Together, we are stronger than the dictators”

Iranian Women manifesting after  Mahsa Amini's death
Iranian Women manifesting after  Mahsa Amini's death (credits: Shutterstock/DigitalAssetArt)

It could be any of you”: with these words expressed to an audience of Sciences Po students, Arancha González, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), paid homage to Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22 year-old Iranian student whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police has sparked protests throughout the country. The focus, scope, and length of these protests, as well as the level of participation from women and men across social classes in Iran and abroad, have been unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution.

On 19 October, PSIA and Sciences Po's Research and Educational Programme on Gender Studies (Presage), sought to explore the possible outcomes of this protest movement through an exchange with Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, in the presence of lecturer and expert on gender, peace and security issues Dr. Elisabeth Marteu, and Dr. Maria J. Stephan, co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2012). The event was moderated by Dr. Tina Robiolle, academic advisor and lecturer at PSIA.

For millions of Iranians, this is the beginning of the end of the Islamic republic. This is a historical moment,” analysed Masih Alinejad. Forced to leave Iran in 2009 in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian Presidential elections, she spent five years documenting human rights abuses and founded in 2014 My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign against compulsory hijab, which has become the largest civil disobedience campaign for women’s rights in the history of the Islamic Republic. “Compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is one of the main pillars of the religious dictatorship,” she explained to the audience. Iranians are calling for global solidarity in their fight against “a gender apartheid”: “This is a protest for Iranians, but also for women around the world,” she said.

“By keeping silent, you interfere”

Growing up in a conservative family in rural Iran, Alinejad had to wear a hijab “even inside the house”. It took her three years, after leaving the country, to take off any kind of head covering, she explained. The journalist is not campaigning against hijab per se, she explained, but against compulsory hijab, “for our dignity” and for women’s freedom. “I strongly believe that compulsory hijab is the main visible symbol of oppression,” she said, comparing it to the Berlin Wall: “If we now succeed in taking down the compulsory hijab, the Islamic Republic won’t exist anymore.”

Dr. Tina Robiolle and Dr. Elisabeth Marteu raised the dilemma of cultural relativism: “The challenge for feminism today is to support women’s rights globally without being accused of  imposing hegemonic values that could be perceived as Western centric,” Dr. Marteu explained. The narrative of cultural relativism, on the other hand, can also be instrumentalised by authoritarian regimes to dismiss any feminist movement as “puppets of the West”. But for Masih Alinejad, the answer is clear: “The feminists, politicians and academics cannot look away saying they don’t want to interfere. By keeping silent, you already interfere and choose a side,” she said. “Don’t look away when the rights of women are being violated. If anyone tells you that you are interfering or silences you in the name of cultural relativism, be as loud and brave as Iranian women. Do not buy into the wrong narrative of the Islamic Republic and its lobbies outside Iran.”

The pillars of successful uprisings

In a second part of the event, Dr. Maria J. Stephan analysed Iran’s uprisings through the scope of the findings presented in her book Why civil resistance works (2012). In this book co-authored with Erica Chemoweth, she studied over 300 major non-violent and civil resistance campaigns and identified four key attributes of successful movements: they generally have “a large and diverse participation” – particularly women’s participation -, use a large diversity of non-violent tactics, observe defections in key supporting institutions of the oppressive regime, and manage to build strong solidarity networks to remain resilient.

The current protests in Iran “are led by women, involving school-aged children, workers, professionals, and people from diverse economic and social classes, across dozens of cities and towns in Iran and internationally,” Dr. Stephan enumerated. She underscored the power of civil resistance that makes it very difficult for the regime to repress the movement: “Imagine if 4 million women in Iran refuse to wear the hijab, you can’t put a fourth of the women population in jail.”

Protesters are also using very diverse resistance and civil disobedience tactics, from taking off the hijab to strikes and street protests, she highlighted. And if we haven’t yet seen defections in Iran’s strong security forces, “they are not the only important pillar of support for authoritarianism,” Dr. Stephan explained. “There are other pillars of support in the economy, the media, clerics, educational institutions, organisations where loyalty shifts will significantly weaken the regime.” Security forces are often “the last to go”, she said and added that is the reason why it is important to focus on all those other elements that can be leveraged. Conscious of the challenge that represent security forces, Masih Alinejad added that democratic countries and the United Nations  should list the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation to weaken their position.

Finally, the Iranian protest movement will have to show its ability to remain resilient in the face of repression by building strong solidarity infrastructures, Dr. Stephan added: “Your ability to take care of people who are fired, imprisoned, or don’t have food … that support structure will be key for the ability of this pro-democracy movement to sustain itself.

A call for international political support

Masih Alinejad further called for Western politicians, particularly female leaders, to unite and act in solidarity with the protesters in Iran. “Instead of just cutting your hair, cut your ties with the Islamic Republic,” she said. The Iranian journalist highlighted the support among dictatorial regimes, just a few days after Russia bombed Ukraine with drones made in Iran. “Democratic countries must shut down the embassies, kick out the diplomats, isolate Khamenei the same way they try to isolate Putin: if we don’t unite against these regimes, trust me, they will get united and end democracy everywhere”.

In conclusion, Masih Alinejad encouraged everyone to show their support to Iranian protesters even if they feel powerless. “What is happening in Iran is coming from ordinary people, and ordinary people outside Iran can help them, echo their voice, be their voice. Social media is our weapon: it can help us beat the wrong narrative of Islamic Republic lobbyists,” she said. Under a standing ovation, she invited the audience to one day visit a free Iran, “my beautiful home country”: “All of us have this dream that we will come back and hug our mothers, hug Iran, hug freedom.”

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Sciences Po at 150

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Moving fluidly between past, present and future narratives, throughout 2022, Sciences Po draw on its history to look ahead to its future in a range of different formats and media.

Discover the 150 years website (FR).

21.10.2022

Masih Alinejad: “Together, we are stronger than the dictators”

Iranian Women manifesting after  Mahsa Amini's death
Iranian Women manifesting after  Mahsa Amini's death (credits: Shutterstock/DigitalAssetArt)

It could be any of you”: with these words expressed to an audience of Sciences Po students, Arancha González, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), paid homage to Jina Mahsa Amini, a 22 year-old Iranian student whose death at the hands of Iran’s morality police has sparked protests throughout the country. The focus, scope, and length of these protests, as well as the level of participation from women and men across social classes in Iran and abroad, have been unprecedented since the 1979 Revolution.

On 19 October, PSIA and Sciences Po's Research and Educational Programme on Gender Studies (Presage), sought to explore the possible outcomes of this protest movement through an exchange with Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad, in the presence of lecturer and expert on gender, peace and security issues Dr. Elisabeth Marteu, and Dr. Maria J. Stephan, co-author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (2012). The event was moderated by Dr. Tina Robiolle, academic advisor and lecturer at PSIA.

For millions of Iranians, this is the beginning of the end of the Islamic republic. This is a historical moment,” analysed Masih Alinejad. Forced to leave Iran in 2009 in the aftermath of the disputed Iranian Presidential elections, she spent five years documenting human rights abuses and founded in 2014 My Stealthy Freedom, a campaign against compulsory hijab, which has become the largest civil disobedience campaign for women’s rights in the history of the Islamic Republic. “Compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth. It is one of the main pillars of the religious dictatorship,” she explained to the audience. Iranians are calling for global solidarity in their fight against “a gender apartheid”: “This is a protest for Iranians, but also for women around the world,” she said.

“By keeping silent, you interfere”

Growing up in a conservative family in rural Iran, Alinejad had to wear a hijab “even inside the house”. It took her three years, after leaving the country, to take off any kind of head covering, she explained. The journalist is not campaigning against hijab per se, she explained, but against compulsory hijab, “for our dignity” and for women’s freedom. “I strongly believe that compulsory hijab is the main visible symbol of oppression,” she said, comparing it to the Berlin Wall: “If we now succeed in taking down the compulsory hijab, the Islamic Republic won’t exist anymore.”

Dr. Tina Robiolle and Dr. Elisabeth Marteu raised the dilemma of cultural relativism: “The challenge for feminism today is to support women’s rights globally without being accused of  imposing hegemonic values that could be perceived as Western centric,” Dr. Marteu explained. The narrative of cultural relativism, on the other hand, can also be instrumentalised by authoritarian regimes to dismiss any feminist movement as “puppets of the West”. But for Masih Alinejad, the answer is clear: “The feminists, politicians and academics cannot look away saying they don’t want to interfere. By keeping silent, you already interfere and choose a side,” she said. “Don’t look away when the rights of women are being violated. If anyone tells you that you are interfering or silences you in the name of cultural relativism, be as loud and brave as Iranian women. Do not buy into the wrong narrative of the Islamic Republic and its lobbies outside Iran.”

The pillars of successful uprisings

In a second part of the event, Dr. Maria J. Stephan analysed Iran’s uprisings through the scope of the findings presented in her book Why civil resistance works (2012). In this book co-authored with Erica Chemoweth, she studied over 300 major non-violent and civil resistance campaigns and identified four key attributes of successful movements: they generally have “a large and diverse participation” – particularly women’s participation -, use a large diversity of non-violent tactics, observe defections in key supporting institutions of the oppressive regime, and manage to build strong solidarity networks to remain resilient.

The current protests in Iran “are led by women, involving school-aged children, workers, professionals, and people from diverse economic and social classes, across dozens of cities and towns in Iran and internationally,” Dr. Stephan enumerated. She underscored the power of civil resistance that makes it very difficult for the regime to repress the movement: “Imagine if 4 million women in Iran refuse to wear the hijab, you can’t put a fourth of the women population in jail.”

Protesters are also using very diverse resistance and civil disobedience tactics, from taking off the hijab to strikes and street protests, she highlighted. And if we haven’t yet seen defections in Iran’s strong security forces, “they are not the only important pillar of support for authoritarianism,” Dr. Stephan explained. “There are other pillars of support in the economy, the media, clerics, educational institutions, organisations where loyalty shifts will significantly weaken the regime.” Security forces are often “the last to go”, she said and added that is the reason why it is important to focus on all those other elements that can be leveraged. Conscious of the challenge that represent security forces, Masih Alinejad added that democratic countries and the United Nations  should list the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation to weaken their position.

Finally, the Iranian protest movement will have to show its ability to remain resilient in the face of repression by building strong solidarity infrastructures, Dr. Stephan added: “Your ability to take care of people who are fired, imprisoned, or don’t have food … that support structure will be key for the ability of this pro-democracy movement to sustain itself.

A call for international political support

Masih Alinejad further called for Western politicians, particularly female leaders, to unite and act in solidarity with the protesters in Iran. “Instead of just cutting your hair, cut your ties with the Islamic Republic,” she said. The Iranian journalist highlighted the support among dictatorial regimes, just a few days after Russia bombed Ukraine with drones made in Iran. “Democratic countries must shut down the embassies, kick out the diplomats, isolate Khamenei the same way they try to isolate Putin: if we don’t unite against these regimes, trust me, they will get united and end democracy everywhere”.

In conclusion, Masih Alinejad encouraged everyone to show their support to Iranian protesters even if they feel powerless. “What is happening in Iran is coming from ordinary people, and ordinary people outside Iran can help them, echo their voice, be their voice. Social media is our weapon: it can help us beat the wrong narrative of Islamic Republic lobbyists,” she said. Under a standing ovation, she invited the audience to one day visit a free Iran, “my beautiful home country”: “All of us have this dream that we will come back and hug our mothers, hug Iran, hug freedom.”

Read more:

DOWNLOAD OUR BROCHURE

Sciences Po at 150

alt

Moving fluidly between past, present and future narratives, throughout 2022, Sciences Po draw on its history to look ahead to its future in a range of different formats and media.

Discover the 150 years website (FR).