Most of us know very little about life in Iran, a new book, The Wind In My Hair by Iranian journalist, Masih Alinejad is a tremendous memoir and takes us into the heartbeat of that country.
Alinejad was born in 1976 in rural Iran and she now lives in exile in New York. She is an author and an advocate for women’s rights. She is a presenter on VOA Persian Service, a correspondent for Radio Farda , and a contributing editor to IranWire.
Masih grew up in a traditional Iranian village where her mother, a tailor and respected figure was the exception to the rule.
As a teenager, Masih was arrested for political activism and while in police custody, discovered she was pregnant. She was released and married quickly, following her husband to Teheran, where she was served with divorce papers. Masih spent nine years struggling to regain custody of her beloved son and remains in forced exile from her homeland.
She says that: “The Wind In My Hair” is about my journey from a village in northern Iran to the metropolis that is New York City, a journey of self-discovery in which I forged my identity after I learned to say NO. It is a tale that may be familiar to many women.”
Every time Masih wanted to do something that the boys were already doing, she heard the same refrain: ”You can’t do that.” Her father expected girls to stay indoors and out of sight. He wasn’t alone in his thinking. No other girls were allowed to run around and play outside the house. Boys had freedom and girls were kept indoors.
Her mother gave her this advice: “Open your eyes wide, as wide as possible. Stare into the darkness and the shadows will disappear. Never be afraid of darkness, but stare it down.”
Masih paints a vivid and fascinating picture of growing up in a Ghomikola, a village of only 650 people. She says at that time she couldn’t imagine a better place anywhere in the world. It was when she reached her teens that she began to realise just how small the village was.
Even to this day almost forty years after Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Masih says that there are debates within Iranian families about whether her father’s generation made a mistake in overthrowing the Shah and his Western-inspired ideas to modernise Iran to bring in a regime that looked to the seventh century for moral and legal guidance.
The events of that Revolution are: “the most dramatic in the history of modern Iran. I am a child of that Islamic Revolution and have lived nearly all my life under its shadow. My story is the story of modern Iran, the tension between the secular tendencies of its population and the forced Islamification of the society, and the struggle of women, especially young women, for their rights against the introduction of Sharia law, against violations of human rights and civil liberties.”
“The revolution changed much, but for the women it was many steps backward. In the Islamic Republic, being born a woman is like having a disability.” In her family, politics was talked about politics all the time and there were two distinct sides to most of the family’s discussions.
All the women in the Alinejad household slept with their head scarves on, but Masih felt that her hair was part of her identity, but you couldn’t see it. “When I was growing up, my hair was no longer part of my body. It had been hijacked and replaced with a head scarf.”
Before the Islamic Revolution, Iran was a country in which a law was passed forbidding women from wearing the hijab. Masih writes that were she around at the time: “I’d have opposed it, not because I believe in the hijab but because I believe in the freedom of choice.”
A photo on Masih’s Facebook page of a woman standing proudly, face bare, hair blowing in the wind. Her crime: removing her veil, or hijab, which is compulsory for women in Iran. This is the iconic self-portrait that sparked ‘My Stealthy Freedom,’ a social media campaign that went viral.
Masih has paid the price for her outspoken bravery and activism. “I am a child of an Iran that carries many scars – the scar of the revolution, the wounds of an eight year war, the lacerations of mass executions, the daily nicks and slashes of discrimination that women face daily. I now carry the scar of exile. “
“There are periods when darkness prevails and threatens to swallow you whole. To overcome the despair and the country’s dark era, I think about my mother’s words and open my eyes as wide as I can and stare out the darkness. The women of Iran want to be free to make their own choices. That’s why the struggle will continue….until we all feel the wind in our hair.
In The Wind In My Hair, Masih Alinejad’s voice is courageous, spirited, inspiring and passionate. Her personal story is an extraordinary one. The book is a tour de force of a memoir. Its balancing of personal account with an even insight into the little known world that is Iran, makes for an astonishing, powerful read
The questioning voice that started in her school years continues today in a woman who is undeterred and continues to fight for what she believes in.
Like I did after reading the book, I recommend watching Masih’s television interview with Tina Brown on stage during the 2016 Women in the World Summit in New York City. It makes for inspiring viewing and brings the power and commitment of seeing and hearing this extraordinary Iranian “in the flesh.”
The Wind In My Hair is a powerhouse of a book, one that should particularly appeal to feminists but also to a broad readership as well. It is one of my top reads of the last few years.