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| My Stealthy Freedom Iran |

photography project on forced hijab in Iran, Tehran © 2017

| LensCulture Portrait Awards 2017, Winner Juror's Pick |

 

Susan White, Photography Director Vanity Fair Magazine on the LensCulture Portrait Awards winning series 'My Stealthy Freedom - Iran':

"By combining social and political commentary with aesthetics in her series, 'My Stealthy Freedom Iran', Marinka Masséus makes a statement about women’s rights, specifically in relation to the forced wearing of hijabs, chadors and burkas. With her images, Masséus addresses a woman’s right to choose whether to be “seen” or not. Wearing colorful, airy fabrics that seem to resist gravity, the sitters might belie the actual burden of wearing such garb. Instead, what is revealed is a bit of the wearer’s personality. We may not be able to see their faces but we can feel the force of their spirits. The hijab can be a state of mind as well as a state of dress and, for me, these portraits speak to a growing resistance toward repressive control, sartorial or otherwise."


 
 | My Stealthy Freedom - Iran | Tehran © 2017

- LensCulture Portrait Awards 2017
- Shortlisted Felix Schoeller Photo Award 2017
- LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018
Article in The Guardian | UK
- Article in Il Post | IT
Article in Israel Times |IL
Article in La Stampa | IT
• and others, for extended list of publications, see awards and publications

This project reflects on forced hijab in Iran, a literal and metaphorical boundary imposed upon Iranian women. Many Iranian women hate compulsory hijab, they see it as a symbol of oppression, forced upon them not by choice or personal beliefs but by an oppressive regime. For them it has become to represent the inequality and discrimination Iranian women face because of their gender. 

Every day, Iranians, especially the women, defy the regime courageously by small acts of defiance. By wearing the hijab too low, the colors too bright, the pants too tight or the manteau too short. Together these constant acts of bravery are affecting change, slowly but visibly evolving. The regime responds to this with regular crack-downs - when women are arrested and harassed - and by creating new laws, like the ban for women to ride a bicycle.

With the windows of my Tehran apartment covered with tinfoil to ensure that the flash would not be visible from outside, we were safe to create and let creativity flow. The women threw their brightly colored headscarf in the air and as it inescapably floated back to them, I captured this act of defiance. 

Below you’ll find a few reflections of their feelings:

“As a girl, I did not want to follow a rule that was forced on me. But I had to, because if something is not obeyed here, there will be consequences. And I did not wanted to trouble myself or my family in any way. So I followed but that did not made me a believer!"

"From the time I went to school I always heard that we all are brothers and sisters! That we are all equal! But in real life.. well there was no equality! Coz I had to cover up for the men! How is that equal?! How come they didn’t have to cover up for me?!”

“Revolution happened Iran before I was born, two years before so when I grew up I thought this is how it must be, women should look like that, but when I checked my mom's photo or I saw movies I found a paradox, why there is difference between us and the other little girls in other countries? I grew up with this paradox, all my teenage hood and after it I had this war inside myself that I didn't want to wear scarfs or long shirts, I wanted to have wind in my hair, being exposed to sunlight like a normal person!"

"I didn't get the real truth until the government made some special police for compulsory hijab called "gashte ershad " when I got arrested by police and they treat me like a criminal (taking my photo with name , fingerprint,..) I got the bitter truth, I felt like a bird getting stuck in a cage, my natural way of living is different than the way our government and society forced me to be, all my life I tried to respect others believes but literally no one in government has respected mine, at least it has been 10 years that every time I want to go out I felt someone’s oppression and injustice on my head, I really feel imprisoned in scarf and hijab.”

“My parents were communists, they fought for freedom against the Shah, and then were betrayed by Khomeini and his regime. I carry their fire for freedom in me. After the government repressed the Green Movement in 2009, many of the young people have given up hope. But I haven’t."

"When I look around in the streets and see the bright colors, the girls wearing the hijabs so low with their hair showing, I see hope. I see change. Even 5 years ago it was all brown and black, like the regime wants. But now colors, colors, colors! So every day I wear my bright colored hijab and get on my bike (which is against the law now) to defy the regime. And I will live my life and not hide who I am. I have hope."

“As an Iranian peace activist, I always suffered from the compulsory hijab in my country. I always felt the pressure of being controlled. In recent years, when I could travel to other countries, for the first time in my life I felt the amazing sense of wind circulation in my hair. This is so saddening; people in other countries never appreciate what they have because they are not aware that there are countries where women are still fighting for their basic needs. The burden is beyond imagination of foreigners, but this is just the tip of the iceberg."

 

NB: I find hijab a very delicate and sensitive topic. I applaud the right for any woman to wear as she chooses. And that is what this project is about, the freedom to choose. The freedom to be in charge of one’s own life. It’s about women coming together and letting their voices be heard. About women fighting for equal rights under a repressive regime. The protest against forced hijab stands symbol for that bigger fight.

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Update februari 2018

In recent years, it's especially women who are pushing for change in Iran. Women in Iran have been fighting for decades for equal rights, but especially in the last few years, such efforts have become stronger. Women in Iran are highly educated. They are involved in the workforce and they are continually suppressed. 

Also during the widespread Iranian protests in the beginning of 2018, women were at the center of the resistance. The young Iranian woman, Vida Movahed, standing atop a container and shedding her hijab while simultaneously waving it as a flag, has become the symbol of the protests.

Since her arrest, more women are taking a stand with their headscarves on a wooden stick, emulating her initial protest. Also religious women and men are joining to take a stand against forced hijab, making it all the more clear that this fight is about freedom and not about religion.

“It is about our rights. We cannot travel without consent of our father or husband. Or study, get a job, rent an apartment, have healthcare. I can tell you hours about our discrimination. There is not even a single night that I can sleep with peace of mind.”


 

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My experience on compulsory hijab in Iran

Masih Alinejad, founder of the My Stealthy Freedom movement, has contributed a great sense of empowerment to Iranian women. Her campaign - for which women send their defiant photos of themselves without hijab which she then posts on Facebook - has inspired many and has exposed the magnitude of shared experience. With my photography project, I wish to add to creating awareness. We were in touch before I left for Iran and although she could not help me with the project due to safety reasons, I felt the importance of her call on foreign visitors to not obey hijab laws in Iran.

Therefore, a lot of times in Iran, to show my support for the fight for freedom, I did not wear the compulsory headscarf - both in restaurants and in the streets. I was amazed by the heartfelt responses. Women coming up to me, thanking me, hugging me, wanting to be in the picture with me, waving from across the street and letting their hijab ‘casually’ slip as well. I was treated like a symbol of freedom just by showing my hair. I could feel the emotion, the gratitude, the hope and a sense of empowerment.

I feel that Iranian people are the most misunderstood people in the world. The image we have of Iran is the image of the regime. Nowhere in the world is there a bigger difference between government and people. The people possess an unparalleled kindness coupled with an innate sophistication. The women are strong and fierce, and their way of thinking secular, modern and enlightened. I have never bonded so quickly in my life and I found true friendships in Iran.

Although social media are forbidden in Iran, women in Tehran are using social media via VPN to help their battle. When they get arrested for breaking hijab rules, they film each other from a safe distance to document the brutality in the hopes of creating more awareness and to empower other Iranian women.

I know that being a foreigner gave me the freedom to defy the law. Only that fact gave me the space to do so. 

When I returned to Amsterdam, I felt the tremedous strain the gender-based restrictions had put on me. I had not fully realized that the regime's restrictive rules had affected me that much. When I was there, I was more aware of the immense kindness of Iranian people and their easy acceptance of me. But upon return at Schiphol and later in Amsterdam, I kept jumping around and dancing, skipping and twirling, loving the freedom to do so and not to worry about the length of my blouse, my hair, my body and about the constant looming potential of getting punished for doing something wrong or breaking some repressive rule. At Schiphol, while dancing and twirling, clapping my hands and singing, I had an overwhelming urge to kiss the ground. My partner compared me with those videos when animals are released, frolicking happily in the grass, and I realized that he was right. That was exactly how I felt. An immense surge of happines and freedom.

 A release of the constant pressure. Allowed to move freely again. To express myself. To not worry whether the countoures of my body might be showing. To not worry whether I finally pushed the boundaries too far.

To. Be. Free. Again.

For the first time in my life, I fully grasp the fundamental blessing of freedom and have tasted a small part of the suffocating effects of oppression, constantly looming, even when 'nothing happens'. It's there. It's always there. And it is suffocating, oppressive and slowly eating away at your soul.
So much of who I am is because freedom has allowed me to be. 

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Masih Alinejad, the tireless activist of the My Stealthy Freedom movement against forced hijab calls upon all foreign female visitors to Iran to NOT wear the headscarf in support of the fight for freedom for women in Iran.