The Woman Whose Hair Frightens Iran

The Woman Whose Hair Frightens Iran

The easing or tightening of restrictions on women’s dress, Alinejad notes, is a barometer of Iranian politics; when a new, less reformist Majlis is elected, for instance, women reporters receive admonitions to improve their appearances. One day it is Alinejad’s turn. A plump cleric shakes a fist at her and yells, “Cover your hair, or I’ll punch you out of here,” when he sees a tiny bit of hair escaping from her hijab. We should all know what happens next. Alinejad, ever the reactionary, yells back: “All this fuss about two strands of hair. You should be ashamed of yourself.” The ensuing altercation has to be broken up by others. “I’m going to teach you a lesson,” the cleric says as he walks away.

It is bitter vengeance. Not long after, Alinejad loses her press pass. She continues to write ever more incendiary articles, getting scoops that expose the graft and corruption of the overtly pious Islamic Republic, but she also begins a series of trips to London and ultimately finds exile in America.

It is while abroad that she founds the Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom,” which encourages women to photograph themselves without their hijabs. The page, soon followed by hundreds of thousands of women, ignites a protest against compulsory headscarves.

Two-thirds of “The Wind in My Hair” is a story of a woman struggling against incredible odds, poverty, political repression and personal crises. It seems, until this point, a departure from the narrative arc that is often forced on Muslim woman memoirs, one that requires the proverbial (and literal) throwing off of the veil and an embrace of what are seen as Western values. Alinejad seems set to avoid this victim-turned-escapee trajectory and she very nearly does. One believes her when she expresses the granular and grass-roots nature of the Iranian movement against the compulsory hijab, and one also believes her detractors who say, “You think we don’t have bigger problems than compulsory hijab?” In both is a prescient exposé of the cruelty of paradigms, the constrictions of the Muslim woman liberation tale and the often maddening centrality of the veil within it.

“The Wind in My Hair” exposes just how vexing it is to disentangle the veil from the context in which it is worn and thus to wage a transnational fight either for its permissibility or its elimination. Now in exile, Alinejad, a woman of exceptional courage, must face the tragedy of being territorially torn from a struggle that is uniquely Iranian and also crucially feminist. In Trump’s America, the agenda of “My Stealthy Freedom” confronts the further danger of being sucked into the maw of a massive American warmongering machine, eager to drop bombs, to eliminate veils and mean Muslim men. This is not Alinejad’s goal, and she tries mightily to articulate the difference, the possibility, of opposing both those who enforce the veil and those who wish to ban it. Born as it is in a world carved into binaries, blue or red, reformist or conservative, “The Wind in My Hair” will likely be judged not on its nuance but on which cruelty, that of the imposed veil or that of the banned veil, cuts more, not on how far Alinejad has come but on how far she still has to go.

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