The Unassuming Selfie That Went Viral

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1Photo: Courtesy of Masih Alinejad.
Iranian, 37-year-old reporter Masih Alinejad never set out to start a social movement when she posted two photos to her Facebook page. The London-based journalist’s pictures included one of her smiling and jumping in the air while in England, and one of her in a selfie that she took while driving without a headscarf (hijab) in northern Tehran.

These two seemingly ordinary, unassuming photos — pictures that in the vast landscape of the Internet normally wouldn’t go viral — set off a chain reaction. Dozens of women began sending Alinejad their sun-filled selfies sans hijab. The response was so overwhelming that Alinejad was moved to set up a separate Facebook page called My Stealthy Freedom to host the growing number of photos. It's only a month old, the page already has more than 500,000 likes. Every day, women submit new portraits of themselves lifting their headscarves high above their heads, hair often free-flying in the wind. Each photo brings more global attention to the women of Iran, and to Alinejad, in particular.

But, as more and more Iranian women commit these small acts of defiance by posting these selfies online, Iran’s government has swiftly responded by slandering and discrediting Alinejad.

Since the revolution in 1979, the hijab and modest dress have been mandatory for women in public places in Iran, in part as a result of the regime's interpretation of Islamic law. And, even though Iranian law requires this, young women have been posting photos of themselves without hijabs on Iran’s Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram for some time. But it was the images of My Stealthy Freedom that caught the attention of Iran’s top media outlets. Suddenly, state-run broadcast news was reporting (falsely) that Alinejad, on drugs, got undressed in public, and was subsequently raped by three men in the London subway in front of her son. One hardline Iranian TV commentator took the intimidation tactic one step further on his Facebook page, where he called Alinejad “a whore.” Taking square aim at Alinejad’s reputation, the media has been implying that her uncovered hair is what put her at risk for sexual violence (the old, unfortunate “she was asking for it” trope) and that she is, by extension, subjecting other women to danger by inviting them to do the same.
2Photo: Courtesy of Masih Alinejad.
Some political analysts speculate that the smear has less to do with the selfies and more to do with the fact that Alinejad also happens to be a political journalist who once exposed a bonuses scandal in the Iranian Parliament. Despite the vicious personal attacks and attempts to shame her family, Alinejad continues to post #StealthyFreedom pictures to Facebook and Twitter and plans to file a complaint with Iran’s judiciary against the state media. Alinejad has also struck back with a YouTube video of herself bareheaded and singing in the London underground.

From the outside, it would be easy to look at the Stealthy Freedom photos of smiling women with their hair blowing in the wind as a campaign against hijab itself. It's not that simple. Alinejad posted her selfies to promote women’s agency and their right to choose. In fact, Alinejad’s mother and sister wear the headscarf (not reluctantly) and she thinks they should be allowed to do so. Alinejad wants to celebrate this. One post on the Facebook page shows a girl in a purple hijab with her laptop screen that bears the words in Farsi and English: “I believe in hijab but hate obligatory hijab!”

For Alinejad, My Stealthy Freedom symbolizes the ability of Iranian women to create small moments of liberation for themselves, and to exercise, no matter how small, their right to personal choice. On the Facebook page, Alinejad acknowledges that “freedom that is stealth cannot be called freedom at all.” So, what does this all mean for Masih Alinejad’s stealthy freedom fighters? The potential for Iran’s women to globally broadcast personal ideas from fashion choices to political viewpoints is on the rise — at least to those who can afford the technology.

This post was authored by Zhaleh Afshar.

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