In this photo taken by an individual not employed by the Associated Press and obtained by the AP outside Iran, protesters chant slogans during a protest over the death of a woman who was detained by the morality police in downtown Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2022.

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

CNN  — 

The Islamic regime in Iran has ruled for decades with fear and intimidation.

Outrage at the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22 year-old who died after being detained by Iran’s morality policy, allegedly for improperly wearing her hijab, ignited nationwide protests across the country that have gone on for weeks.

That Iranians are risking their lives and freedom to stand up to their government has sparked hope among many that change is coming. Read CNN’s latest report.

I talked on the phone to Masih Alinejad, an Iranian in exile in the US who works as a journalist and activist.

Key points:

  • She uses social media – 8 million followers on Instagram alone – to amplify and aid the protests inside Iran.
  • US authorities charged four Iranian nationals with trying to kidnap her last year.
  • To Alinejad, that women in Iran are removing their headscarves as an act of protest is equal to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
  • She sees solidarity with dissidents from other oil-rich autocracies like Russia and Venezuela, and has a stern message for feminists in the West.

Our conversation, edited for clarity and length, is below. I’ve also added some context and links in parentheses where appropriate.

‘A women’s revolution against a gender apartheid regime’

WHAT MATTERS: This newsletter is not usually focused on Iran. Can you first just explain what’s happening?

ALINEJAD: Mahsa Amini was only 22 years old. … She came from Saqqez to Tehran for a vacation. Then she got arrested by the so-called morality police – because I call them the hijab police.

And for your audience, if they don’t know what morality police means, they’re a bunch of police walking in the streets, telling people whether their way of wearing hijab is proper or not.

Mahsa was arrested for wearing inappropriate hijab. So she was not unveiled.

(Here is a CNN report in which the Iranian police deny the allegation she was beaten.)

ALINEJAD: That created huge anger among Iranians. And that is why women across Iran first started to cut their hair. Then they took to the street and they started to burn their headscarves. And now, with men, shoulder to shoulder, across Iran they’re not only saying no to compulsory hijab, they are actually chanting against the dictator and they are saying we want an end to the Islamic Republic.

This is a revolution.

To me, this is a women’s revolution against a gender apartheid regime.

Iran’s crackdown has not stopped protests

WHAT MATTERS: The Iranian government has tried to crack down on this. We see video that gets out of Iran of these protests. How have things changed in the weeks since Mahsa’s death?

ALINEJAD: From the beginning, the level of crackdown was so brutal. They opened fire, they really opened fire on teenagers, school leaders, university students, they opened fire on unarmed people.

Now some reports say more than 130 people have been killed. But it’s strongly believed the number is much more than this. Only in Zahedan on only one day, they opened fire on those who were praying. Who were praying. They killed more than 80 people in Zahedan.

(CNN has not verified all of these claims. Related CNN report: Iranian security forces beat, shot and detained students of elite Tehran university, witnesses say.

Amnesty International has reported on the killing of 66 in Zahedan along with other deaths recorded in other places.

Regarding death tolls: CNN cannot independently verify the death toll –  a precise figure is impossible for anyone outside the Iranian government to confirm – and different estimates have been given by opposition groups, international rights organizations and local journalists.)

ALINEJAD: The Iranian regime cut off the internet in some cities to prevent the rest of the world from getting to know about the crackdown, to get to learn about the number of people killed.

But again. That didn’t stop people. Actually, it changed the tone of the protesters. They became more angry. They were holding the names and photos of those who got killed and the major slogan was this: ‘We are ready to die, but we won’t live under humiliation.’

One of the young women whose name was Hadis Najafi, she was only 20 years old. She made a video of herself walking in the street and saying I’m joining the protests. In the future, if I see that Iran has changed, that change came, then I was proudly part of this demonstration. She got killed. There are many of them.

(CNN has reported that Najafi’s family said she was shot six times and never made it home from a protest. She was 23. There are reports of multiple young women killed. Here’s a CNN video report on Nika Shahkarami, whose family found her body at a morgue after not being able to find her for 10 days following an Instagram story of her burning her headscarf.)

Students filmed themselves burning their headscarves, but they got killed. But murdering and killing didn’t stop the protests. Instead they became more angry. Now schoolgirls came out, university professors came out, teachers came out and ask for a strike.

(Here’s a CNN report that explains the special significance of strikes in Iran.)

Women have been pushing back on a smaller scale for years

WHAT MATTERS: The flashpoint is one woman’s death that set off all of these protests. But it’s a movement that’s been building for months –

ALINEJAD: Don’t say for months. I don’t accept that. It has been building for years. Years of women pushing back the boundaries the anti-woman laws, especially compulsory hijab laws.

For years and years, these women that you see in the streets, they have been fighting back compulsory hijabs alone. Like lonely soldiers. I myself have published videos of women being beaten by morality police under the hashtag #mycameraismyweapon. I really want you to go and check this hashtag. Brave women filming themselves while being harassed by morality police and looking to the morality police and saying that you cannot tell me what to wear.

Slavery used to be legal. I’m not going to respect bad law in Iran.

This is being built up by women within the society practicing their civil disobedience in bravely saying no to forced hijab and the gender apartheid regime for years and years. That’s my opinion. Mahsa’s name became a symbol of resistance for women to take to the streets in large numbers. That’s the new thing.

What’s next for these protests? Can they be sustained?

WHAT MATTERS: How will this be transformed into permanent change? How will it evolve from here?

ALINEJAD: Look, this is not going to happen overnight. This is the beginning of an end. It takes time. It reminds me of the revolution 40 years ago. People were taking to the streets for like one month and were going back home and then coming back again. The national strike helped a lot. For me and millions of people, this is just the beginning to an end.

The compulsory hijab is not just a small piece of cloth for Iranians. It’s like the Berlin Wall. I keep saying that. If women can successfully tear this wall down, the Islamic Republic won’t exist.

Maybe in the West, people ignore me and they never take this seriously. But the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, he knows what I’m talking about. That’s why, just two days ago, he referred to my statement comparing the hijab to the Berlin Wall, saying that ‘she is an American agent and we have taken action against her.’

(Alinejad shared this video of Khamenei on Twitter, in which he refers to US political elements making the comparison to the Berlin Wall.)

ALINEJAD: But it’s not me. It’s millions of people who believe that compulsory hijab is like the main pillar of the religious dictatorship. It’s like the main pillar of the Islamic Republic.

That’s why I believe that now people are being fearless and clear that we want to break this weakest pillar of the Islamic Republic… I strongly believe that the biggest threat to the Islamic Republic are the women who are leading the revolution, who are facing guns and bullets and saying that we want an end for this gender apartheid regime.

The importance of social media and the failure of social media companies

WHAT MATTERS: In Iran, and we’ve seen this in Russia as well, social media is helping spread the word and is essential to organizing protests. Here in the US, it is often viewed as a threat to our democracy because that’s where misinformation is spread. I wonder if you had any thoughts on that dichotomy.

ALINEJAD: Let me be very clear with you. Right now, the tech companies are actually helping the Islamic Republic. First of all, Iranians are banned from using social media – Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are filtered. The leaders like Khamenei and other officials who ban 80 million people from using social media, they all have verified accounts. They have multiple accounts on social media. Basically, the Iranian regime cut off the Internet for its own people, but they’re being more than welcomed on social media to spread fake information, misinformation, disinformation.

(Accounts that appear to be associated with Khamenei are on Twitter and Instagram and have large followings. They are not verified by Instagram or Twitter. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Meta said this in an email: “Iranians use apps like Instagram to stay close to their loved ones, find information and shed light on important events - and we hope the Iranian authorities restore their access soon. In the meantime, our teams are following the situation closely, and are focused on only removing content that breaks our rules, while addressing any enforcement mistakes as quickly as possible.”)

The Biden administration expressed support for protesters… and is also trying to make a deal with the regime

WHAT MATTERS: The US government has tried to increase Iranian’s access to the internet. Is that working?

ALINEJAD: Oh, of course, this is phenomenal. But we need more. We need more.

The thing is, at the same time, the US government, we’re pleased that they’re providing internet access for Iranians. This is good. We appreciate that.

But at the same time, the US government is focused on getting a deal from this regime, the same regime.

They condemn the brutality, they condemn the Iranian government for killings, but at the same time, they try to give money, billions of dollars, to the same murderers. And I don’t understand this contradiction.

(The US government could give Iran’s government ​access to billions of dollars of frozen Iranian funds if it re-joins an agreement whereby Iran can sell oil in exchange for abandoning nuclear weapons capability. Recent talks, however, have not gone well. Read more.)

A plea to further isolate Iran

ALINEJAD: Many people in the streets are now risking their lives and want an end for the same regime. They aren’t asking for US government to go there and save them at all. They’re brave enough to do it themselves. But they’re really clearly asking the US government not to save the Iranian regime. …

People believe that the money goes to the benefit of the people. It doesn’t go to the people. The money goes to Syria, Lebanon, to Hamas, Hezbollah, to terrorist organizations.

For millions of Iranians now, this is the moment they want the US government to ask its allies, the European countries, to recall their ambassadors and to cut their ties with the murders until the day that they are sure that the Iranian regime is stopped killing its own people.

(CNN isn’t able to confirm that all the money goes to terrorist organizations or that none of it goes to Iranian people. Iran does fund terror groups outside its borders, according to the US government, and its own Islamic Revolutionary Guard is a terror group, according to the US government.)

Western feminism compared with Iran’s new feminism

WHAT MATTERS: I want to talk about another dichotomy you’ve pointed out. You wrote in The Washington Post that feminists all over the world need to pay attention and take to the streets.

ALINEJAD: You cannot call yourself a feminist in the West, in America, and not take action on one of the most important feminist revolutions, in Iran.

By saying that, I don’t mean that I want the feminists to just appear on TV and cut their hair to show their solidarity.

I want, especially the female politicians, to cut their ties … and instead take to the streets to show their solidarity with the women of Iran. When the Women’s March happened here in America, like every single feminist around the world showed solidarity. I was part of the Women’s March in New York. The main slogan was ‘my body my choice.’

But at the same time I’m witnessing that when it comes to Iran and Afghanistan, it seems that my body my choice is not as important as it is in the West.

(Here Alinejad said women representing Western governments who meet with Iranian and Afghan officials should refrain from wearing headscarves.)

A union of dissidents to fight the autocrats

WHAT MATTERS: You took part this week in an Oslo Freedom Forum event in New York with other dissidents from Russia and Venezuela. Those are two places that are repressive, and they’re also funded largely by oil. The US wants more oil on the market. I just wondered if you had any larger comments to make on this question?

ALINEJAD: This is what’s missing here. The dictators are more united than our freedom fighters.

Let me give you an example. Just two months ago, (Vladimir) Putin went to Iran. (Nicolás) Maduro from Venezuela went to Iran … from China to Russia to Venezuela to Nicaragua, everywhere. The leaders from autocracies and dictatorships are united. They’re helping each other. They’re supporting each other to oppress protests taking place in each country. But we the freedom fighters, we the opposition to these dictators must be united as well, because when we fight against autocracy or dictatorship on our own, we’re not going to be successful.

(Alinejad said she has talked to dissidents from Russia and Venezuela about calling a World Liberty Congress for opposition and activist leaders.)

ALINEJAD: If we don’t get united to end dictatorship, then the dictators will get united to end democracy. We’re not fighting just for ourselves. I’m not fighting just for Iran. Garry Kasparov is not fighting for just Russia. Leopoldo Lopez is not fighting just for Venezuela. We are fighting for democracy. We’re trying to protect the rest of the world from these dictators.

(Our conversation continued from here and Alinejad argued the “United Nations is useless.” It’s true the United Nations prioritizes inclusion of most countries over action. And it is awkward at best that Iran sits on the UN’s Commission on Women’s Rights and Russia sits on the Security Council.)

ALINEJAD: We need to have our own alternative United Nations, where all the good people get united, not the bad guys. Now the bad guys are winning because they’re helping each other. So this is the time that all the good people who care for freedom and democracy get united and have their own society.