#LetUsTalk: Stop Silencing Iranian Women | Opinion

"In Iran I was told if I don't wear hijab, I get kicked out from school, I get jailed, lashes, beaten up, and kicked out from my country. In the West I'm told, sharing my story will cause Islamophobia. I'm a woman from Middle East and I am scared of Islamist ideology. Let us talk."

These are the words that started Iranian journalist and activist Masih Alinejad's campaign #LetUsTalk. A campaign that both calls out the West for silencing Iranian women and provides a platform to elevate their voices globally.

Masih's voice and the voices of Iranian women have been silenced. When they share their experiences of living under an Islamist regime, they at times get accused of causing Islamophobia by elements of the left in the West. It is dangerous to confuse the opposition to an oppressive Islamist regime with anti-Muslim hate. In fact, to consider misogynist practices of the Islamic Republic of Iran as being part of the Muslim faith is itself Islamophobic, particularly when these critics of Iranian women have not experienced such practices first-hand. As Masih told us, "Phobia is an irrational fear but my fear of Islamic laws is rational."

At the center of this protest lies the compulsory hijab and Iranian women's opposition to it. Yet, in the West, this opposition has been criticized and canceled by elements of the left. Western societies celebrate the freedom of choice. In recent years, there has rightfully been a concerted effort to normalize the right to choose the hijab: the right of any woman to choose how she dresses and what she wears. There has been commendable campaigns for the freedom of choice where Vogue celebrated the hijab and Western feminists rallied together against the Burkini Ban. But where are they now when women in Iran are having their choices taken from them? As Iranian women involved in #LetUsTalk have told us: "Outlets on the left and the center have so far been unwilling to support our campaign—we don't want the far-right to hijack it."

Iranian women of the #LetUsTalk campaign
Iranian women of the #LetUsTalk campaign. Photo Courtesy of My Stealthy Freedom/Masih Alinejad

Here in lies the issue: Wearing the hijab in a free society is not the same as having it imposed by the state through force.

In Iran, women do not choose to wear the hijab, it is enforced. In fact, recent polling revealed that 72 percent of people in Iran oppose the compulsory hijab. As Shiva Amini, a former female soccer player for Iran's national team, told us, "Like 99 percent of my teammates, wearing the compulsory hijab while playing soccer made me feel strangled—physically and mentally. We knew, if we refused to wear it, we'd get expelled—as I did." Like Shiva, Iranian women have been contesting the compulsory hijab since its imposition 43 years ago. Similar to what we are witnessing now in Afghanistan under the Taliban, women risk their lives to oppose compulsory hijab and defend their right to choose. Iranian women receive lashings and harsh prison sentences for not wearing hijab in public. As you read this, Saba Kord Afshari is serving a brutal 24-year prison sentence for publicly un-veiling during a protest. This is not about a piece of cloth, it is about values like freedom, choice and democracy. None of which exist for women in Iran.

Ironically, while some in the West have tried to silence voices like Masih's under the pretext of "Islamophobia," in Iran, both veiled and unveiled women have supported the protest against compulsory hijab; together they campaign for choice. "Iranian women are opposing the authoritarian imposition of the hijab by risking their lives everyday. This is about women regaining control over their own bodies," Masih urged time and again.

Masih Alinejad is pictured.
Masih Alinejad is pictured. Photo Courtesy of My Stealthy Freedom/Masih Alinejad

Masih's #LetUsTalk campaign is breaking through the silence by elevating the voices of brave women speaking out against the compulsory hijab. By posting photographs of themselves online, these women are reclaiming their identities, a progressive value that should be advocated universally by today's left. She risks her life and the lives of her family through her advocacy for the rights of Iranian women and criticism of the Iranian regime. Iranian security forces have harassed Masih's family, imprisoned her brother and even attempted to kidnap her from her New York home. It seems strange that a petite curly-haired woman like Masih would threaten, to such lengths, a hyper-militarized ballistic missile wielding-regime like Iran. But she hits a nerve.

When regime zealots call for Masih's death to avenge Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qasem Soleimani's blood; when Iran's Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi recently said, "If the Islamic Revolution is going to be harmed, it will be by women," and when senior Iranian clerics declare Masih as their "main opponent," it clearly demonstrates the Islamic Republic's fear of Iranian women. They are afraid of women who fight for their basic rights; and their rights have the power to mobilize support from abroad.

Iranian women of the #LetUsTalk campaign
Iranian women of the #LetUsTalk campaign. Photo Courtesy of My Stealthy Freedom/Masih Alinejad

It seems perverse that elements of the left in the West and feminists smear her name and discredit her voice. Particularly when the main victims of Islamists are Muslims, and even more so Muslim women. As Mahya Ostovar, a young Iranian woman and participant in #LetUsTalk who now lives in the West told us, "The problem with the far left is that if you don't fit their view of a Middle Eastern woman, they don't want to hear about it and try to cancel it." Mahya's words have resonance with reality when prominent Western Muslims like Representative Ilhan Omar promote defamatory articles about Masih. Such smears aid the Islamist regime in their war against women.

For decades now there has been an incomprehensible alliance between elements of the left and Islamists. Today, the silencing of Iranian women in the West is a symptom of unconsciously mainstreaming this alliance—something true progressives and liberals must pushback against. Iranian women have been silenced twice. First by the Islamic Republic, and now by the West. Let them talk—#LetUsTalk.

Kasra Aarabi is a senior analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

Jemima Shelley is a researcher at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.