DUBAI – An Iranian-American activist famous for her campaign against the Islamic Republic’s mandatory headscarf, or hijab, for women has sued Iran in U.S. federal court, alleging a government-led harassment campaign targets her and her family.
Masih Alinejad’s lawsuit seeking monetary damages comes in the aftermath of nationwide protests in Iran over spiking gasoline prices that reportedly killed at least 208 people in November.
Dissent continues as Iranian authorities separately said Thursday they broke up a plot to cause a gas explosion at a student dormitory at a Tehran university.
But even before the latest unrest, authorities had already announced that women face a possible 10-year prison sentence for sending videos to Alinejad’s “White Wednesday” civil disobedience campaign against the mandatory head covering.
The harassment, including the imprisoning of her brother, was to “preclude Ms. Masih Alinejad from continuing her career as a journalist, author, and political activist working to criticize the Iranian government and bring international attention to the regime’s human rights abuses, in particular women’s rights,” alleges her lawsuit, filed on Monday in Washington.
Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Alinejad, who recently published an autobiography, fled the country after the disputed 2009 presidential election and crackdown. She is a prominent figure on Farsi-language satellite channels abroad that critically view Iran and has worked as a contractor for U.S.-funded Voice of America’s Farsi-language network since 2015, according to the lawsuit. Alinejad, who lives in Brooklyn, became a U.S. citizen in October.
Her “White Wednesday” and “My Stealthy Freedom” campaigns have seen women film themselves without hijabs in public in Iran, which can bring arrests and fines. But there have been signs of women increasingly pushing back against the requirement.
During a trip to Iran in July, an Associated Press journalist spotted about two dozen women in the streets without a hijab over the course of nine days. Many other women opted for loosely draped colorful scarves that show as much hair as they cover.
While there have been women fined and arrested, others have been left alone as Iran struggles with economic problems and other issues under re-imposed U.S. sanctions following President Donald Trump pulling out of Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
In recent weeks, Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard seized and began torturing her brother Alireza Alinejad-Ghomi, the suit alleges.
State television officials and security forces have pressured her mother as well, who at one point “threatened to pour gasoline on herself and set herself on fire” during a confrontation, according to the suit. Later, however, her mother called and disowned her over the telephone, “knowing that the phone lines in Iran are not secure and that she was essentially making a public statement that could be used against Ms. Alinejad at any time,” the suit said.
Alinejad seeks monetary damages in the lawsuit. Her suit comes after a U.S. federal judge awarded Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian and his family nearly $180 million over his imprisonment and torture in Iran.
Iran routinely does not respond to such lawsuits and has monetary orders levied against it. Some lawsuits end up receiving money from the United States Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund, which has distributed funds to those held and affected by Iran’s 1979 student takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and subsequent hostage crisis, as well as other events.
Alinejad also named the Guard and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as defendants. Both have been sanctioned by the U.S. government under Trump, while the Guard has been designated by America as a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile Thursday, state TV read a statement from Iran’s Intelligence Ministry on air that said authorities arrested suspects in the plot to cause a gas explosion at the Elm-va- Sanat engineering university in Tehran. The statement said they cut a hole into a gas pipeline there for a dormitory housing some 200 students. The report did not elaborate.
The explosion was to happen on Students Day, authorities said. The commemoration Saturday marks the death of three students protesting a visit by then U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon to Tehran following 1953 CIA-engineered coup against Iran’s democratically elect Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh that cemented the shah’s power.
Former reformist President Mohammad Khatami also warned late Wednesday that while the middle and upper classes didn’t join the November protests, they had sympathy with those who did, according to a statement released on his behalf. While backing a government allegation about foreign influence in the demonstrations and Khamenei, Khatami said a “big danger” still loomed if economic woes combine with political and social discontent.
“In that case, the military, security and disciplinary forces cannot manage the situation and the society will be against the government,” he said.