Geneva Summit 2015 Women’s Rights Award with Masih Alinejad

Masih Alinejad, Iranian women’s rights activist, journalist, and founder of the My Stealthy Freedom campaign, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full Remarks

Hillel Neuer: I just want to say personally, what an honor it is for myself and my organization to be involved with this moment. With that, let me invite Tamara Dancheva, who is the human rights point person for Liberal International, to present our inaugural 2015 Women’s Rights Award.

Tamara Dancheva: Thank you. I’m honored today, on behalf of the Geneva Summit coalition of NGOs, including Liberal International, to present the 2015 inaugural Women’s Rights Award. As we mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, it is fitting to recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, founding Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and a key figure in the adoption of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. 

On the 10th anniversary of this document, she said the following: “Where after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home, so close and so small, that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet, they’re the world of the individual person, the neighborhood he lives in, the school or college he attends, the factory, farm, or office, where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity, without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they don’t have meaning anywhere.”

This year, as the inaugural recipient of our Women’s Rights Award, we have selected someone whose work embodies the understanding that the small places where the individual girl and woman lives and works are where human rights begin. I’d like to ask you now to please watch the video screen.


Yesterday’s demonstration was the nearest thing to an anti-Khomeini rally yet. The imposition of Islamic law here has started with an order to women to cover their heads in government offices. Many are furious; only a minority in Tehran already follow the instructions.

[still part of the video being shown to the audience — a reporter is speaking]

A selfie war is happening in Iran. It all started with this photo. It was posted by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad back in April. Alinejad, who now lives in the UK, posted a few photos of herself online without the hijab. After she got thousands of likes on Facebook, she had an idea. She said, “When I was in Iran, I would take my headscarf off when I was out in the field or someplace private. And I wondered how many Iranian women did the same.” Apparently, a lot.

[Masih Alinejad voiceover]

If you publish your photo without a scarf, this page is getting media attention [a Facebook page is shown on screen]. When they make their own decisions, that has a message. That means they do not have any opportunity inside Iran, thanks to social media. And I’m a journalist — I didn’t ask them to take off their scarf. I just asked them, do you have this moment of guilty pleasure? And I am reporting about what exists in Iran. I’m not writing about something or putting them in danger. This [phenomenon] exists in Iran, and I’m reporting on it. The only thing that I wanted to do is just give voice to voiceless women.

[A clip is shown, at 6:38, in which a crowd of men and a veiled woman harass a non-veiled woman. A message on the screen reads “Lend a hand to help us not to force.” Then, the hashtag, #MyStealthyFreedom.]

Tamara Dancheva: Through her courageous and creative work, Masih Alinejad empowers women in Iran. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “To seek equal dignity without discrimination.”

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Geneva Summit of Human Rights and Democracy, I’m proud to present our 2015 inaugural Women’s Rights Award to Masih Alinejad. As the inscription reads, “For giving a voice to the voiceless and steering the conscience of humanity to support the struggle of Iranian women for basic rights, freedom and equality,”  

Masih, please come forward.

Masih Alinejad: 

Hello, everyone. My name is Masih Alinejad. I’m an Iranian journalist. I mean, I have to be nervous and scared, it’s understandable. But for Iranian journalists or Iranian women rights activists, it is familiar to be scared as well. 

So, before coming here, I have to be honest, I was really nervous and scared. What is the reason? Being Iranian and talking about human rights means living with accusations of working with the Israeli government, American government, or British MI6. So we have been labeled by our government a lot, that we are working for a foreign government against our own country.  That made me really nervous and scared to come here. But at the end, I just told myself, whether you speak out or not, they’re gonna label you if you be the voice of those voiceless people inside Iran. So that’s why I decided to come here and accept this award. 

Thank you Geneva Summit for this award, which I accept in the name of thousands and thousands of Iranian women who are fighting and challenging against compulsory hijab, the heartless compulsory hijab rules in Iran.

To begin my speech, you may have heard of the story of Michelle Obama, when she was taking off her scarf when she was meeting the government in Saudi Arabia. Now, let me share a secret with you. The only place in the world that Michelle Obama can go in which she cannot take off her scarf is in Iran — not even in Saudi Arabia, in which women are suffering from not having basic rights. They’re not even allowed to drive. But that is a country [where] Michelle Obama can take off her scarf and visit the government. Because she’s the first lady, she won’t end up in jail, but definitely she will be deported from our airport in Iran.

Now, I keep hearing from a lot of people — actually, the majority of them are men — saying that hijab is not a big issue. And Iran has gotten a lot of big, so called “big issues,” bigger problems. 

Yes, that is true. Since 2009, I have covered the bigger issues in Iran as well. I have covered the news of those people who were protesting against the Islamic Republic government in Iran, but they were killed, and they were imprisoned and tortured to death. I have interviewed the families of more than 50 people who got shot in the street just because of asking “where is my vote?” or “where is my right?” In that time, I had been ignored, too. But now I’m focusing on the hijab, because I believe this piece of cloth is big, too. When this piece of cloth is in the hands of governments who do not believe in freedom of choice, it can be a chain around the necks of Iranian women, and choke their vitality and energy.

Compulsory hijab is affecting half of the population of Iranians. You might say that there are a lot of women in Iran who believe in hijab, and I shouldn’t claim that it’s going to affect the whole women in Iran, but let me share my story with you to show you how much the compulsory a job can affect all women in Iran, both — with or without hijab.

I’m a child of revolution. I was born in a Muslim and religious country. My parents were supporting the Islamic Republic. Two of my brothers were involved in the war between Iraq and Iran. So I’m coming from a family where my mother still wears a hijab, my sisters, my aunties. I mean in fact, all the women in my family wear hijab. So how can I be against hijab? 

This is what the Iranian government accused us [of]. They say that we are against hijab. But I cannot be against my family. I am against compulsory hijab, because I strongly believe compulsory hijab can [create] separation between families and societies.

So the person who is addressing you here is not some Western woman, I am familiar with religious society. What I am against, as I said before, is compulsion. The compulsory hijab, which affected my family, and I strongly believe, which affects all the women, even with hijab, in our society as well. 

But one more thing, the compulsory hijab affects men in Iran as well. It is an insult to men that they cannot control themselves according to Islamic rule in Iran, when they see the hair of Iranian women, they can get excited, they cannot control themselves. This is an insult against men as well in Iran.

In my country, if you’re not a Muslim, if you’re just a tourist and going to visit Iran, you have to wear the compulsory hijab. This should not be a secret, but I really love my country. And I always when I talk about the ugly part of Iran, it breaks my heart. I can’t even read through my speech, I want to share with you, that when I was just passing the corner, I saw an Iranian

who I don’t know. He was just asking me, “Are you the Iranian that’s going to talk against Iran?” 

I said, “I’m not going to talk against Iran. I’m talking about those rulers, those decision-makers who put pressure on Iran.” 

No one can say how much we Iranians living outside love our country, and when we talk about the ugly part of Iran, we don’t mean that we are talking against our own country. The truth is, Iran is beautiful.

And then every time when I carry my country, my family and my people on my shoulders, and take it from one corner to the other corner to talk about Iran, my concern is this. I want to show the nice part of Iran to you. And the video that you saw, this is the other part of Iran, the hidden face of Iran, the face of Iran that you’ve never seen through Iranian media; the face of Iran that we’re always under oppression, we’re under pressure. And over 35 years, you’ve never seen the real face of Iranian women. I want to be with my mother, my sisters, and those women inside Iran who believe in hijab. I want to walk shoulder by shoulder with them, not living outside Iran, and being accused by our own government that we are against Iran, which is not true. And it’s a big lie.

That was the reason. Because I was forced to wear a hijab at the age of seven. When you ever want to think about Iranian women, just think about the seven year old girl. Why do I focus on a scarf? Because I believe that this piece of cloth, when it can force a seven year old girl and a seventy year old woman in Iran, cannot be a small thing in Iran. It’s a big issue for all Iranians. 

So that’s why last night I started a page called My Stealthy Freedom. Freedom cannot be stealthy. But in Iran, yes, it is. Because we are only allowed to take off our scarf and be ourselves in a secret place, in private. When we do not see the police around ourselves. 

But freedom should be freedom. You have to be free to be yourself. And our freedom is not bothering anyone in Iran, but they put pressure on us, as you saw in the video. The police and the woman with the black veil, were forcing us to wear the hijab that she believes in.

And we want to send a message to those women as well. Just give your hand to us and be with us and help us. Give your hand to us to be a help, not force us to be someone else that we do not believe in.

And through that page, ordinary photos from ordinary women in Iran, those women who are not in power, who are powerless, but sending their powerful messages to the world. They shared their pictures with you, with our government too, with the media inside Iran and outside Iran.

For those used to seeing Iranian women covered head to toe in black veils, My Stealthy Freedom, [is] a platform to show and share with you another page of Iran, full of colors. They can get punished just because of being happy and having colorful faces, colorful dresses, and just flying like birds, holding their scarves like this to show that we want to be free. This is a crime. This hair can scare the government of Iran. And if you go in Iran, it doesn’t matter whether the reformists or the moderate president or the conservatives are in power, this hair can scare everyone. And if you challenge them, if you ask them for freedom of choice, and you challenge the compulsory hijab, you will hear only the one voice — that this is a breaking law action.

And we keep hearing this from different politicians inside Iran. And we keep hearing this from politicians outside Iran, when we ask them why you don’t challenge the government of Iran when you visit them. They say the hijab is required by law in Iran, and we are not going to break the law. I have to mention that slavery used to be legal as well. Slavery used to be legal. If no one had objected against slavery, nowadays, slavery would still be with us. So that’s why we are asking you to challenge the discriminatory law, because there are millions of Iranian women who believe that compulsory hijab is a discriminatory law; the compulsory hijab rules is unfair. 

And according to Iranian police, [Iranian name], just last year, 3.6 million of these women were warned by the police. Why? Because they were not practicing the proper Islamic hijab. And 18,000 of these women, they were sent to the court, and their only crime was just showing their hair, not even without a scarf — just showing a little bit of their hair in the street. 

So why am I writing about this? Because I was a parliamentary journalist in Iran. And my main focus was about politics. I was asking any critical question about politics, the main comment from the MPs was that, first you have to cover your hair. 

That’s true. 

If you want to live in Iran, as a woman, first you have to cover your hair. If not, you won’t be allowed to study. If not, you won’t be allowed to have a job. If you don’t choose the Islamic hijab, you won’t be allowed to live in Iran. 

They ignore our existence. They ignore us when you don’t accept the compulsory hijab. That is why we are just coming together on this page.  And thanks to social media which helped us, thanks to Facebook which helped us to show this face of Iran, which you’ve never seen.

If you want to know what was the reaction of the government of Iran. All that they did was just keep silent, ignoring us in a nice way. And what was the reaction of Iranian media? Of course, they attacked us. The Iranian state TV attacked these women and I, myself. They even were not ashamed to make a report on Iranian state TV and saying that Masih Alinejad has been raped by three men in London, while she was naked there. So for them, not having this scarf means being naked. 

For us, living under the pressure of this government, sometimes it takes time to get released from this scarf. Because when you live in such a society, this piece of cloth, this scarf that you do not believe in, it’s going to be part of your identity. It’s going to be part of your body. 

I left Iran in 2009, but because I was living in such a society, and I was living in a family in which they were trying to teach me that if you’re not wearing a scarf, you are going to be in hell, and you’re going to be under pressure here and in another life. For me, it became, like, a good name for my family, part of my body. It was not as easy as you think; leaving it behind is like cutting off a part of your body.

And this is happening in Iran, in small towns and societies, small cities as well. That’s why we want to bring the debate through social media. Because we’ve never had this issue and debating about this red line, uncensored issue on Iranian state TV. We want to talk directly to those people who believe in hijab through social media and to let them know who we are, and we are not against the hijab. 

So to move to cultural change in Iran. In terms of communication, we have to talk to those people who are being brainwashed and think that if we want to choose our freedom, our way of dressing, we are against them. They all believe that we are paid by Western government[s], the government of Iran. But we’ve seen them in the United Nations. We’ve seen them here visiting the politicians outside Iran. But if we do that, and we raise the voice of Iranian women, we are going to be labeled. 

I came here not just [to get] the award. What is important for me is just getting the attention of those politicians, especially the women politicians around the world, who are visiting Iranian government inside Iran and outside Iran, to challenge the compulsory hijab. I’m not asking the female politicians to support us. I’m asking them to support themselves, to respect themselves. Because when they are meeting the Iranian government in any non-Muslim country, the Iranian government asks them to remove all the alcohol beverages, the Iranian government asks them to respect the Muslim values. I want them to ask the Iranian government to respect human dignity, to respect our values, to respect women’s right to choose. I want the female politicians, when they visit Iranians, just to ask the question, why we have to obey the compulsory hijab. I’m asking those politicians, that when millions and millions of women are putting themselves in danger, why don’t you dare to ask a single question about the compulsory hijab.

And again, I want to just express that they might assume that the hijab is required by law. As I said before, yes, slavery used to be legal, and if no one objected against slavery, nowadays slavery would still be with us. Like Martin Luther King, I want to say that we the Iranian women have a dream as well. That one day our voice [will be] heard. And compulsory hijab will leave Iran forever and our freedom will not be stealthy anymore. Thank you very much for hearing me.

Hillel Neuer: Thank you so much to Masih Alinejad. I think now, you have a sense why we’re so inspired by the work she’s doing for women and girls in Iran and around the world.

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

Speakers and Participants

Masih Alinejad

Award-winning Iranian freelance journalist and creator of ‘My Stealthy Freedom’ project encouraging women to post photos without headscarves


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