(Repeats story moved on Sunday without changes to text)
* Site for unveiled Iranians gets half million followers
* State TV says reporter a drug-addled deviant
* Pressure on president to reform social restrictions
By Robin Pomeroy
LONDON, June 15 When Masih Alinejad posted a
picture of herself online jumping in the air in a sunny,
tree-lined London street, the journalist hoped to cheer up
readers weary of her stories of grim human rights cases in her
She did not expect what followed: a Facebook phenomenon that
gained half a million followers in a month and scathing,
personal criticism by Iranian state television, accusing her of
drug addiction, perversion and insanity.
Inspired by Alinejad's photo, taken in a public place with
her hair showing without the Islamic veil that is obligatory in
Iran, thousands of women inside Iran uploaded their own
self-portraits to a page she hastily set up and called: "My
Stealthy Freedom". (here)
"To me, it was like a virtual demonstration on my Facebook
page," the 37-year-old told Reuters in an interview, seeming
genuinely astonished to find herself the figurehead of a
campaign against Iran's restrictions on women's dress.
A political journalist who already had 200,000 Facebook
followers before posting her selfie, she set up the separate "My
Stealthy Freedom" to prevent her own page becoming swamped by
women wanting to share their pictures.
"Look," she says, opening her laptop at a London cafe to
show the most recent photo uploaded. "That was posted four
minutes ago, and already has 439 likes and 11 shares."
Born two years before the Islamic Revolution that brought
down the Western-backed Shah in 1979 and ushered in Iran's
hybrid of democracy and religious rule, Alinejad is too young to
remember her country before women were obliged to wear the veil.
As then, she says, many people underestimate the importance
of the obligatory veil, saying there are far more pressing
political issues. But she maintains that forcing a woman to
cover her hair is the state's way of stamping its authority.
"When I was in Iran, my hair was like a hostage of the
"OUR PEOPLE'S RIGHT"
Her Facebook followers agree. Many photographs show women
standing in front of signs reminding women of their duty to
respect the hijab, the Islamic dress code, holding their
headscarves in their hands.
The photographs are unremarkable to a Western eye, but have
outraged parts of the Iranian establishment which have hit back.
The state TV news channel IRINN, on a clip still available
on YouTube, reported that Alinejad had been raped by three men,
in front of her son, on the London Underground after she took
her own clothes off while high on drugs.
The popularity of the page, and the vitriolic reaction, have
made it the focus of one of the most prominent challenges to
President Hassan Rouhani, a self-proclaimed moderate.
Like the arrest of six young people last month who posted a
video of themselves - the women unveiled - singing along to the
Pharrell Williams pop song "Happy", "My Stealthy Freedom" has
shown the yearning of liberal-minded Iranians, many of whom
voted for Rouhani, for greater personal freedoms.
"#Happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard
on behaviours caused by joy," Rouhani wrote on Twitter after the
He also appeared to agree that social rules - in a country
where morality police patrol the streets to detain women they
deem to be showing too much hair - should be eased, saying: "We
can't take people to heaven by force and with a whip."
But reformist Iranians say those words have not been
followed by policy changes. "All the nice words have expired,"
With Rouhani pushing for a nuclear deal with the West to
lift crushing economic sanctions, and civil wars raging in
Iran's regional allies Syria and Iraq, personal freedoms and
women's rights are unlikely to be high on his agenda.
But Alinejad doubts Rouhani would ease the hijab rules even
if he were able to in a system where the ultimate say lies with
the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
And Alinejad does not trust Rouhani's invitation for all
Iranian expats to return to Iran, where she fears she would be
arrested due to her reporting on human rights in Iran that is
carried by British and U.S.-funded broadcasters.
"I love my country and I never want to stay in England even
for one single day if I am allowed to be safe in my country and
cover the news that I cover from here," she says.
In response to the TV report of her drug taking and rape,
Alinejad posted a video of herself, standing on the platform of
the London Underground, singing a song in Persian about "my
homeland", as people walk by, unfazed by her hair or her song.
"My real revenge was to use what the hardliners are most
petrified of: singing a song without a veil, in London," she
said. "Can you publish this video on Iranian TV? No. Would I be
safe singing on the Tehran subway without a veil? No."
The state TV reported on the video - although it did not
broadcast it - saying Alinejad had lost her mind due to the
(Editing by William Maclean and Stephen Powell)