Woman behind ripple of change in Iran starts with campaign against hijab mandate

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In light of the recent protests that swept Iran at the beginning of the year, calling for the removal of the country’s theocratic regime lead by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iranian women have hopped on the bandwagon and are demanding their basic rights.

Dozens of women gathered in front of the Iranian Ministry of Labor on Thursday, which coincided with Women's Day, while security forces closed roads around the ministry and deployed troops in the area, according to local media outlets.

A week ahead of the demonstrations, several social media campaigns were launched by activists in the country urging the need for better women's rights in Iran.

But one of the most popular and talked-about campaigns in Iran at the moment is the White Wednesdays movement. The concept is simple: In order for women to protest Iran’s law mandating them to wear the hijab in public, every Wednesday, women wear white and publicly take off their hijabs, letting their hair loose.

White Wednesdays is the brainchild of Iranian activist, Masih Alinejad, who is also the founder of the online movement, My Stealthy Freedom, which opposes the mandatory dress code.

Al Arabiya conducted an interview with the 41-year-old activist who currently resides in New York to find out when it all began.

What made you want to start these campaigns and when did you decide to do it?

The White Wednesdays movement is the continuation of the larger My Stealthy Freedom movement. My Stealthy Freedom started four years ago when I had posted one of my pictures on Facebook without the veil, visibly enjoying the wind stroking my hair. Soon afterwards, many of my female followers from Iran expressed their envy at the freedom that I was enjoying in the West.

I responded by telling my fans that they could actually create their own versions of ‘stealthy freedoms’ in Iran, away from prying eyes. I shared one of my old pictures taken in Iran where I myself had taken off my veil while driving. Shortly afterwards, my personal Facebook page became flooded with women doing the same and sharing their own pictures taken in public spheres without the veil.

That was how a ground-breaking campaign was born. Later, as the campaign gained momentum, White Wednesdays movement was born about roughly a year ago. The goal of White Wednesdays remains the same: put an end to the compulsory veiling law in Iran and give women the freedom of choice. As part of White Wednesdays, I have been asking women all over Iran to don white on Wednesdays as a sign of opposition. The campaign grew beyond my control and soon afterwards, women started walking the streets of Iran bare-headed and sending me their videos. The ground-breaking moment that gave rise to the #GirlsOfRevolutionStreet was when Vida Movahedi started waving her white scarf as a flag in a busy street (called Revolution Street) on a utility box in public on a White Wednesday. She kickstarted a movement that continues today.

Do you think a theocratic regime like Iran can change anything?

The theocratic regime doesn't have any options. It is increasingly confronted with an educated population that is very cognizant of women's rights and women in Iran have been pushing for change for decades. They cannot repress a society forever, especially women in Iran, who have been very vocal for their rights. I have only given them a platform because such a platform against compulsory veil has been missing.

Do you think the majority of women in Iran are ready to accept the freedoms that come with the removal of hijab?

Independent surveys are difficult to conduct in Iran. The government's own survey conducted in 2014 concluded that nearly half of people in Iran wanted the compulsory veiling law to come to an end. I think the real figure is probably higher than this. The #GirlsOfRevolutionStreet phenomenon and #WhiteWednesdays have changed a lot in society just by creating a debate.

You’ve been living abroad since 2009. Don’t you think that the Iranian people might be suspicious when such calls for reform come from someone living outside of the country?

Although I am outside, I am merely a platform for Iranian women. If you check my videos, they are all coming from Iranians. I am not imposing anything from outside on Iranians; I am merely relaying their voices because their voices are censored by national news outlets. That I live abroad does not change the fact that there are millions of women who do not want to wear the compulsory veil in Iran. I receive hundreds of messages from Iranians on a daily basis and I cannot read them all. This is an indication of how much they need their voices to be relayed.

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