In her compelling memoir, The Wind in My Hair: My Fight for Freedom in Modern Iran, journalist and activist Masih Alinejad describes several occasions when she was castigated for how she was dressed. The first occurred when she was a teenager who traveled from her tiny northern Iranian village, Ghomikola, to the city of Babol to attend high school. When she saw that many young women in Babol did not wear the chador, the large cloak that leaves only a woman’s face visible, she decided to stop wearing one herself.
One day, she unexpectedly ran into her devout father, who sold poultry and eggs on the city’s street corners. When he saw her without a chador, he was incredulous. “You make the devil blush with your sinning,” he scolded. “You have brought shame on me, brought shame on your mother. You have ruined our reputation.” Alinejad was, at the time, wearing a hijab, the head scarf that all women in Iran are required by law to wear; she also wore a long-sleeved dress over a shirt and trousers, and, covering those, a knee-length jacket known as a manteau.
Several years later, Alinejad was a reporter in Tehran covering the Iranian parliament. The press corps was accompanying a parliamentary delegation on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Given the scorching heat, she and two other female reporters decided not to wear the chador, but again she was clad in a hijab, a dress, trousers, and a long jacket. A male reporter angrily approached her. “You are shameless – you have no morality,” he said. “You have brought shame on the Iranian delegation.”
Alinejad was born in 1976 and was just a toddler when the 1979 Islamic Revolution transformed Iran into the modern era’s first Islamic theocracy. Not long after, all women in Iran, even those visiting from other countries, were required by law to wear the hijab. “I was taught that women’s bodies encouraged men to commit sin,” Alinejad writes. Like her mother and sister, she slept in her hijab.
But even as a child, Alinejad was a free thinker with a penchant for troublemaking. (She recalls appearing in a Quran recitation competition in school and reciting a poem by modern Iranian poet Ahmad Shamlou, instead of the Quranic verses, as teachers dragged her off the stage.) There was much about life in Iran to spark her outrage. As a teenager, she was arrested and jailed for weeks, enduring hours of intense interrogation, for belonging to a political group critical of the government. Later, her husband left her for another woman, yet the courts granted him full custody of their three-year-old son. Finally, she was forced to leave the country – living in exile first in London (where she eventually reunited with her son) and currently in New York – after writing articles that exposed parliamentary corruption and ridiculed the supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
It was, however, the compulsory hijab law, and the broader policing of women’s bodies, that became the focus of her activism once she left Iran. In 2014, she posted on Facebook a picture of herself in London without a hijab, with her thick, unruly curls blowing in the wind. She followed it up with an older picture of herself, taken while still in Iran, without a hijab. She encouraged other women in her home country to add photographs of themselves in public without head scarves; many have, though they risk arrest if caught. Alinejad writes that the campaign, which she titled My Stealthy Freedom, celebrates “the moments of small rebellion, the tiny acts of defiance that allow us to breathe, the guilty pleasure of breaking unjust rules.” The page now has more than a million followers on Facebook.
Alinejad takes pains to explain that she is not “against hijab but against compulsion”; she believes women in Iran should be allowed to choose whether or not to cover their heads. She also addresses the complexities of opposing compulsory hijab from the United States in the Trump age, when there is a danger that criticism of Iran’s law might lend support to anti-Muslim sentiment. She sees the need to fight “both Trump’s Islamophobia and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s misogynist policies.”
The gutsy author tells her life story in a chatty, confiding tone. She captures well the experience of growing up poor in a small rural village, as when her father comes home with a banana, the first the family had ever seen: Alinejad’s mother divided it into six pieces and proceeded to bite into her portion, skin and all. At nearly 400 pages, the book – overly long and occasionally repetitive – would have benefited from some trimming. Still, "The Wind in My Hair" movingly conveys not only the significance of its author’s activism but, given that she hasn’t been able to see her family in almost a decade, its considerable costs.