A chill must have gone down the spines of dissident journalists all over the world when the news about Jamal Khashoggi came out a week ago — that he had disappeared inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey and may have been killed and dismembered by Saudi government operatives.
Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad found it frightening and ominous. “My first reaction when I heard the news was I got goosebumps,” she told me last week on a visit to Los Angeles. “I said, ‘This could happen to me as well.’ We journalists of the Middle East — this is the fear we have in our hearts. We are not totally out of their reach.”
Like Khashoggi, the 42-year-old Alinejad is based in the United States, nominally beyond the reach of the regime that she relentlessly criticizes over her social media channels, in her recent book “The Wind In My Hair” and in her work for various outlets including the Voice of America Persian service.
How safe is she?
Alinejad leads a large and growing civil disobedience campaign against the compulsory hijab, encouraging women in Iran to remove their hijabs and posting photos and videos of them doing so on social media.
She encourages women to out their sexual harrassers by taking video and sending it to her, and she posts that as well.
Her Instagram videos typically draw millions of views, making her the voice of dissident Iranian women from her home base in Brooklyn and a constant thorn in the side of the Iranian regime.
The parallels to another authoritarian regime, Saudi Arabia, are unmistakable for Alinejad. In March, she was threatened by a prominent member of the Basij — Iran’s feared paramilitary arm.
The official told BBC’s Persian Service “that he would hire someone in America to kill Masih — to cut her chest, cut her tongue and send it to her parents in Iran,” Alinejad recalled (she wrote about it in the Washington Post at the time).
When she tried to lodge a complaint at the Iranian interest section in the Pakistan embassy in Washington, she was told she could not enter unless she covered her hair. She refused.
That is not the only threat that Alinejad has faced. A year ago, the Iranian government prevailed on Alinejad’s parents to invite her to Turkey, saying that they wanted to “have a chat” with her. Alinejad smelled a trap and declined to go.
After that incident, her parents publicly denounced her and she said she no longer is in contact with them.
Recently came word that a senior official in the Iranian department that oversees public morals told the Iranian Fars News Agency that if Alinejad enters any embassy outside of Iran, she should be arrested. So far Alinejad has not gone abroad, but the still-unconfirmed fate of Jamal Khashoggi weighs heavily on her.
“I have to be more careful, that’s it,” she said. “But I don’t want to live in fear. I don’t want to keep silent because of that.”
Alinejad spoke at a WrapWomen event earlier this year, talking about the responsibility of the West to support dissident voices — even when it made diplomatic relations more complicated. To fail to do so, she argues, betrays our democratic values.
“This story is beyond sad,” she said. “Being a journalist and living in fear all your life in your country — you leave your country for one dream — to be safe, to be the voice of the people who are suffering from lack of freedom. And then, in a safe country you get killed? It means they attacked your dreams. And it’s more sad if you see the West doesn’t take any action.”
Alinejad had harsh words for those in America and Europe who welcomed Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as a reformer without scrutinizing his other repressive actions, such as locking up his relatives and women who had challenged the driving ban.
“They are talking about bin Salman’s reform to let women drive, but they never ask where are the campaigners against the driving ban,” she observed. “They are in prison right now in Saudi Arabia, but they (the West) doesn’t care because the reform is the main issue… When we are fighting the dictatorship in the Middle East, and the West legitimizes them — that kills us.
“We try to stop living in paranoia,” she said. “I have only one life. If Khashoggi was alive he’d say the same thing, I’m sure. We have only one life. We dedicate ourselves to our goal, to our dream. What really kills me is that in a really free country, in the West, you can take action, but because of the political agenda they keep silent. They don’t force the Saudi government or Iranian government to pay the price. That’s what kills me.
“What is the West going to do?” she asked.
Watch Alinejad’s interview from last June below. She will also be appearing at WrapWomen’s Power Women Summit on November 1-2 in Los Angeles.