IIt has been 13 years since Masih Alinejad hugged her mother. That realization hit her during an interview with TIME in early February, followed by another: “Oh my God, I forgot my mom’s face,” she says, wide-eyed and shaking her head in disbelief. He stops and composes himself. “Look, I don’t want to cry on camera.”
Alinejad, 46, understands the power of her platform. Exiled from Iran since 2009, the journalist and activist has long spoken out against Iran’s restrictions on women, call the compulsory hijab “the Berlin Wall” of the regime. Her campaign worried Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who not only criticized her in speeches, but even sent his minions to kidnap her in July 2021. A year later, a similar plot was to end in assassination, according to US Department of Justice indictment. “Iran’s women are its biggest enemy,” says Alinejad. “He fears us more than anything else.”
Masih Alinejad in New York on February 3, 2023.
Celeste Sloman for TIME
And the women of Iran are angry. Months of nationwide protests have rocked the country since a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa “Jina” Amini, died in September in the custody of the notorious “morality police” who roam public spaces to enforce Islamic dress and behavior.
Read more: Why Iranian women are TIME’s heroes of the year
However, Alinejad arrives in surprisingly good spirits at the TIME studio in New York, having come from the FBI safe house where she is holed up with her husband and son. She understands that the attention is fueling a rebellion based on the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom.” Regime forces have killed more than 500 protesters and arrested thousands more. The streets have become quieter in recent weeks. But the depth of her connection with Iran’s youth — she has nearly 9 million Instagram followers — tells her the Islamic Republic is living on borrowed time. As the photographer works, she sings. “The words mean: because I am a woman, I bloom through my wounds.”
Alinejad grew up in a tiny village near the Caspian Sea, where her father was a sharecropper. He found purpose as a newspaper reporter in Tehran, but left Iran for good in 2009 after falling out with the regime because, among other things, he reported that lawmakers had not taken the pay cut they claimed. “I asked too many questions,” he recalls.
When she first started speaking in New York, her only weapon was social media. In 2014, she launched a campaign called My Stealthy Freedom, asking women in Iran to record themselves without a hijab. she would upload their videos to her Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts. Thousands of women have obliged over the years, the campaign being characterized by the hashtag #WhiteWednesdays.
“Iran is inside me,” he says. “I’m there every day through my social media.” Videos and social media connections remain a way for her to connect with her hometown, where her elderly mother still resides.
In November, French President Emmanuel Macron, seemingly moved by a meeting with four Iranian women — including Alinejad — declared the protests a “revolution.” He has also briefed US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and met with other exiled Iranian dissidents to discuss ways to unite a fragmented opposition. And he asked female politicians to stop wearing the hijab. “I am asking all Western feminists to speak up. Come with us. Make a video. Cut your hair. Burn a handkerchief. Share it on social media and amplify the voices of Iran. Use your freedom to say her name,” he wrote last year.
As she speaks, Alinejad looks around the studio. For once, her own phone is not in her hand. He just talked about young girls—16-year-old Sarina Esmailzadeh and 17-year-old Nika Shakarami, who were beaten to death in protests last year—and wants to put their names in their faces by showing TIME photos and videos of them.
When those girls were killed, she says, “suddenly they became heroes. Why don’t people pay attention to women when they’re alive?’
More must-reads from TIME