The apartment is almost empty now. Just half a box of Cheerios, a bin bag of rubbish and a few pot plants remain. Masih Alinejad sits in this impersonal room with her laptop balanced on an upturned saucepan, puts on her jacket and goes live on CNN. After finishing her segment, rebutting reports the Iranian government has dismantled its infamous religious police – “Disinformation to break the resolve of demonstrators” – she turns to her husband, Kambiz Foroohar. They must leave in an hour, he says.

This flat in downtown Manhattan is an FBI safe house, their eighth or ninth. (They’ve lost count.) The couple, along with Foroohar’s teenage son, never stay longer than four months, and I’m only allowed inside because they’ll be elsewhere by tonight. Masih fusses over her parched plants, worrying they’ll die in transit – “I’m a village girl. I need green things around me” – so I help carry them down to the waiting car. The lift back up is full of her wealthy, self-involved neighbours, who have no idea this lively woman with the kinetic curls who coos over their dogs is in danger of her life.

These are no vague Twitter threats. The Iranian state seems determined to silence Alinejad, 46, one of its most fervent and persistent critics. A lifelong dissident, in 2014 she encouraged women to post photos of themselves, hair blowing in the breeze, defying the Islamic Republic’s compulsory hijab law. My Stealthy Freedom became a movement: its Facebook page now has one million followers. And since the death in September of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old brutally beaten by religious police, Alinejad’s Instagram feed (with 8.6 million followers) has become a conduit for videos by young protesters and, increasingly, for memorials to the dead.

There have been three serious plots against Alinejad in three years. The first pressured relatives still in Iran to lure her to Turkey for a family reunion. After her brother, Alireza, revealed to Masih this was a trap, he was jailed for eight years, serving two. In the second plot, four Iranian spies travelled to New York planning to abduct Alinejad and take her by speedboat to Venezuela, from where she’d be flown to Tehran for a show trial and probable execution. Then in July, when the couple were already in hiding, an Azerbaijani man was found loitering outside their Brooklyn home with a loaded AK47. “My husband saw the CCTV and he was like, ‘He didn’t even need a gun. He was a massive guy – he could have just killed you with his hands.’ ”

Constantly watching your back, moving between anonymous flats with just a suitcase of possessions must be tough, I say. Alinejad shrugs: “It’s harder for Kambiz,” she says. He misses the house where he raised his two children, which they now must sell. He was infuriated by this safe house’s dripping tap and broken bedroom curtains, but then he was raised in Tehran and Brighton, whereas she grew up in a two-room dwelling made of mud, with no indoor plumbing. Luckily, her stepson forgives this disruption to his life, “though I’ve ruined everything”.

She yearns, however, for their Brooklyn garden where she grew basil, mint, tomatoes, and cucumbers, which she pickled and gave to her neighbours. “I call it pickle diplomacy!” she cries. “When we had to leave they all signed a letter saying they’d water my plants for me.” Her voice cracks a little. “That is how I want relations between Iran and America to be.”

It’s a bitter irony that Alinejad, who as a child was made to recite, “Death to America!” is now accompanied by a Swat team when collecting clothes from her own home. “It’s heartbreaking my country is trying to kill me, and my adoptive country is trying to protect me.” Yet, after eight years in the US, she still feels like a tourist. “My body is here. But my soul, my thoughts, are in Iran.” She rises at 5am, having monitored social media and replied to protesters throughout the night. She shows me screeds of WhatsApp messages and shaky phone footage sent by demonstrators: schoolgirls chanting, women ripping off chadors or holding placards, snatched shots of beatings. Above all, she tries to comfort and advise bereaved mothers.

Numbers are hard to verify, but the Human Rights Activists News Agency believes around 500 people have been killed in protests since September, including 69 under-18s. There have been an estimated 18,000 arrests and now several public hangings of protesters to terrify and deter demonstrators. Only China kills more of its own citizens than Iran.

Masih Alinejad feels every new development viscerally, flying into fluent tirades – against the Iranian regime but also callow western leaders more keen on a nuclear deal than human rights – her slight, 7st frame vibrating alternately with anger and grief. “I live in my laptop,” she says. “I carry my people on my shoulder. I go everywhere with them.”

The Iranian regime has faced mass protests before, notably after the highly disputed 2009 presidential election. But this generation of young people, says Alinejad, is different. “They’re ready to die for freedom. They don’t have anything to lose. Social media – which the government tries to suppress – has given them a really clear picture of a ‘normal’ life that their generation is having around the world.” She cites Sarina Esmaeilzadeh, a 16-year-old YouTuber who died after demanding young Iranians be granted freedoms enjoyed from Ethiopia to Los Angeles. She recalls warning a woman who sent her footage of police beating a protester that it could reveal her location. “She said, ‘They killed someone in front of my eyes. And Masih, I kept the video for four days out of fear. But I don’t know what happened to that young man. I feel dead inside, so publish it.’ ”

Alinejad has spent her life defying rules imposed upon Iranian girls. She grew up in the village of Ghomi Kola, some 90 miles northeast of Tehran, the youngest of six children. Her parents, like many poor Iranians, had welcomed the overthrow of the corrupt shah. Her father enlisted in the hated Basij paramilitary security force, smashing cassette tapes of western music he found in cars at road blocks.

After the revolution, women lost hard-won rights overnight: in divorce and employment, to sing or dance, to dress as they wished. Masih grew up burning with injustice that she was denied freedoms her brother Alireza enjoyed. So she made a deal: since he was afraid of the dark, she’d accompany him to their outdoor lavatory at night, if he would secretly teach her to ride a bicycle and to swim in the river. He became her greatest ally.

She grew up watching TV mullahs say little girls who refused the hijab would be hanged by their hair. Yet while her sisters conformed, she rebelled, constantly asked questions such as, “Why aren’t men veiled too?” She devoured books, which she often stole. At a Quran-reciting competition, she instead quoted a Persian love poem until clerics turned off her microphone. And at 16 her own stealthy freedom began: she removed the long black chador with which schoolgirls are shrouded from the age of seven, wearing instead a colourful scarf and light coat. When her father caught her, he spat in her face and said she was no longer his daughter.

But this first rebellion empowered Alinejad. “Saying no to my father meant I could say no to my high school, no to government laws. I believe when we fight compulsory hijab, we’re not fighting against a piece of cloth. When we dare say no to those who tell us what to wear, we can find the power to say no to the dictator.”

Expelled from school, she formed a small dissident group with Alireza and a young poet, who became her lover. They obtained a small printing press, published pamphlets and daubed “Death to Khomeini” on walls until, aged 19, Alinejad was arrested and imprisoned for sedition. In jail she discovered she was pregnant and on her release, her outraged family demanded she marry the poet, but he quickly left her for another woman and she lost custody of their son.

By 24, Alinejad was divorced and alone in Tehran, considered by her family to be a disgrace, but she found a job on a newspaper covering the Iranian parliament, later getting suspended from the lobby for wearing red shoes. Journalism and her fiery activism took her to America and Britain, where she obtained a degree from Oxford Brookes University.

Hers is an extreme, tortured form of exile. While in Britain, Iranian TV ran false stories that she’d taken drugs, was a spy, a whore, and had been raped on the London Underground while not wearing a hijab. This horrified her mother, whom she hasn’t seen for 13 years. One sister who supports the Islamic regime denounced her on TV. “But my mum refused and said, ‘If you come to my village and ask me again, I will set fire to myself.’ I forgive her because she did everything to protect me.” When her brother was imprisoned, her family begged Alinejad to keep silent. But she replied that other families with brothers, sisters and mothers depended upon her – and she chose them.

This messianic sense of mission has won her critics as well as supporters. Settling permanently in the US in 2013, marrying Foroohar, then a Bloomberg journalist, she was given a show on Voice of America’s Persian service. She never stopped attacking the Iranian government, whose elite send their children to study in the US, and made a mocking video outside the Californian home of Eissa Ebtekar, whose mother, Masoumeh, was one of the 1979 US embassy hostage-takers and later an Iranian cabinet minister: “He lives here in luxury,” she cries, “but every year his mother burns the American flag!”

Yet she has won few friends among the liberal Iranian diaspora, including academics who believe her campaign against the compulsory hijab to be fuelled by western Islamophobia. “These men,” she rages, “most of them grew up here, studied here. They’ve never lived my life under sharia. And they’re telling me I’m too westernised, an American agent.”

In part it is snobbery: a rich, smooth, international Iranian elite disdaining this blunt, scrappy provincial girl. But also her anticlerical views collide with US identity politics. Under Trump, the hijab became a symbol of Muslim-American defiance, whereas Alinejad, in a speech at Stanford University, compared it to the Berlin Wall. “After the revolution, the mullahs wrote their ideology on our body,” she says. “We, the women, were the ones carrying the most visible symbol of the Islamic Republic, which is hijab. You remember the first picture of when Yazidi women got free from Isis? They threw off their chadors. What is the main image now of Afghan women under the Taliban? Compulsory veiling. Hijab is a tool to control the whole society through women, and that’s why they [Islamic regimes] are not giving up.”

When she started My Stealthy Freedom, western feminists stayed silent. “America had this big women’s march: my body, my choice. I thought, can we have another rally for Iranian women, because we want freedom of choice as well? It is very racist, that feminists believe they deserve to have a secure democratic country, but we don’t.” Alinejad reserves special fury for western women politicians who comply with hijab laws visiting Iran, such as France’s Ségolène Royal or Sweden’s Ann Linde. She was blocked on social media by the World Hijab Day campaign (which asks non-Muslim women to wear the headscarf in solidarity) for suggesting it also supports women beaten for refusing to veil.

Alinejad notes that she opposed Trump’s Muslim travel ban, spoke against the French burkini ban at the European parliament and supports a woman’s right to choose to wear a hijab. But the left cannot forgive her for meeting Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to demand stronger sanctions against Iran. “Of course, I meet with everyone,” she says. “I am bipartisan. I met with Secretary Clinton. I met with President Macron. It is my duty to meet with all the leaders and make sure that they’re not going to bury human rights beneath their deals.”

But since Masah Amini’s death attitudes have changed. “Some of the left and liberals, they only represent you when you’re victims,” she says sarcastically. “When you’re warriors, they don’t invite you. I’m loud. I say no to forced hijab, no to Islamism. They don’t buy it. But when I’m a victim, suddenly they use my pictures.” Very late, she observes, previously silent leaders like Oprah Winfrey or Michelle Obama have spoken up for women in Iran.

The attack against Salman Rushdie in New York in August came just weeks after she went into FBI protection. Did it make her feel more vulnerable? “I was screaming,” she says, “running corner to corner in my safe house, shouting, ‘My God, after 30 years, finally they did it.’ ” The New York Times asked her to write an article. “I went on the social media of the attacker, it was full of ayatollahs – and ayatollahs are celebrating that Salman Rushdie lost his eye. I wrote it was because of the fatwa. But the NYT said, ‘The motive behind the assassination plot is not clear for us, so we cannot publish it.’ ” She says she’s not scared for her life. “What scares me is, the Islamic Republic is going to kill everyone – and the West doesn’t get it.”

The Iranian state is mighty and brutal, but the fearless women remind her of Margaret Atwood’s line in The Handmaid’s Tale: “They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.” She’s encouraged that, this time, demonstrators are both working and middle class, city dwellers and from small towns, but especially that young men are now standing side by side with sisters and mothers, under the banner “Women, Life, Freedom”. She has often railed against male indifference, begging Iranian men not to attend football stadiums when women are still banned. These brave young men remind Masih of Alireza.

Then the phone rings. “We have to go now,” she says. It is the FBI saying the apartment is no longer under their protection. She must photograph the key (she’s famous for losing keys), put it on the table and leave. So I help her pack up her few remaining possessions, among them three hats the FBI suggests she wear to be less visible. In the lift down, she puts on a baseball cap to show me how it boings off her wiry curls and roars with laughter. Masih Alinejad is in such constant motion, operating at the highest emotional pitch, often forgetting to eat or change clothes, that I fear she could burn out. Yet her joie de vivre is as irrepressible as her hair.

Try not to die, I say, as she hugs me goodbye. The mullahs, she says, seem more scared of her than she is of them. “But safe is too luxurious a word for anyone in Iran. So why should I be safe?” Then her vivid face and unmistakable hair disappear into the New York crowds.

‘This regime must go’

Executions and activism on Masih Alinejad’s Twitter feed (@AlinejadMasih)

December 8

Iranian singer is facing execution. #SamanYasin was kept in a refrigerated cold room for 3 days to do forced confession. He was handcuffed from behind, & thrown into solitary confinement with leg-cuffs. His family called on the world to stop his execution.

December 10

URGENT APPEAL FOR HELP: This brave athlete, #SahandNoorMohammadzadeh, a protester arrested recently, is in imminent danger of execution. He’s been transferred to solitary confinement of Rajai-Shahr prison. His crime? He was seen kicking a garbage bin twice during protests.

December 17

#TaranehAlidousti, an Iranian actress, has just been arrested by the regime. She had joined Iranian people’s movement against the regime by posing unveiled and carrying a placard that said “#WomenLifeFreedom”, the slogans of the #IranRevoIution.

December 12

EU! PULL OUT YOUR AMBASSADORS! EU! PULL OUT YOUR AMBASSADORS! EU! PULL OUT YOUR AMBASSADORS! Another dawn, another murder under Islamic Republic. #MajidrezaRahnavard, 23, was executed today. Sham trials. The regime’s method on dealing with protests is to kill all opposition.

December 18

We won’t forget. #AsraPanahi from #Ardabil, was only 16. At her school she refused sing a pro-regime anthem. As a result, she was brutally beaten and lost her life in hospital. She is one brave soul who gave her life to this revolution. After brutally killing #AsraPanahi, the regime denied killing her. They alleged that she had a pre-existing condition and later they said she had committed suicide. Her family denied all these allegations.

December 8

He was only 23 years old. This morning, just before sunrise, the Islamist regime in Iran executed #MohsenShekari, a protester they had arrested in #Tehran. Mohsen gave his life for freedom. He wanted a normal life. One more brave soul killed by this bloody regime.

December 8
Dozens could face execution in Iran due to the protest over the murder of #MahsaAmini. 15 are on trial in the city of Karaj, including three 17-year-old boys and these married couple, Farzaneh & her husband Hamid Ghare-Hasanlou, who is a medical doctor. They are innocent.

December 19
The child-murdering Islamist regime in Iran arrested a 14-year-old girl named Massoumeh for removing her hijab. She was repeatedly raped and then died. Her mother, who wanted to break the story, has been disappeared. This regime must go.

Source » thetimes