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27. March 2008

Nazanin Afshin-Jam © Nazanin Afshin-Jam

Nazanin Afshin-Jam

Unorthodox MISSion

Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Iranian born Canadian and ex-Miss Canada mobilizes against the execution of minors in Iran. In addition to that, the 28year old activist is a successful singer, pilot and political scientist.

Not just a pretty face’. ‘She has beauty and brains’. ‘A pageant queen with a message’. These are just a few of the endless clichés used to describe Nazanin Afshin-Jam. Okay, so she does hold the title of Miss World Canada 2003. And no one would protest that her looks have a somewhat blinding affect. But it is not her big, brown eyes or her long, shiny hair that make her a face worth remembering. It was merely these exterior qualities that made it a little easier to get her foot in the door of global recognition. And it has saved many lives in the process.

The fame that the ‘Miss World’ title brought Nazanin Afshin-Jam is what resulted in the positive fate of Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi, a minor on death row in Iran for killing a man who tried to rape her. While searching online for the young Nazanin, a Parisian man came across a beauty queen of the same name and decided to contact her in hope that her “celebrity” status would bring light to this human rights violation. Immediately after she was informed about the case of her namesake, she started a signature campaign. Through “Help Nazanine” she collected 350.000 signatures and on January 31st, 2007 Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi was freed from prison and the threat of execution.

Afshin-Jam´s work did not end there, and Nazanin went on to establish the organization, Stop Child Executions, which works tirelessly to save minor offenders on death row, of which there are at least 90, in Iran.

Women without Borders intern Jacqueline Stein from Canada caught up with Nazanin and this is what she had to say on beauty and representation, support systems, cultural pulls, the value of women and children, and why being an overachiever is not always a good thing.

On Beauty…
I entered the Miss World competition because when I was working with the Red Cross, I was only reaching out to 30 people at a time in the classrooms and I had to find a way to reach out to more people. I found that people listen to sports stars and celebrities more than they listen to politicians. That’s around the time that I heard about Miss World whose motto was “Beauty with a Purpose”. Beauty added that little bit of extra attention to the cause, but it’s not just about that. You do not need all the glitz and glamour to change things. You just need to use your own blessings in your own way to advance humanity.

Iran is a conservative society in terms of women’s dress and appearance, but the people are conservative because they have to be, not necessarily because they want to be. Most Iranian women, from what I know, I would say it’s about 80%, don’t want to wear the veil, they want to have a choice. They don’t want to be conservative.

On Representing the Women of Iran…
In fact, I represent these women in spirit. If you go to Iran, to Tehran’s city centre, and you go to the parties, they are like any other parties in London, Paris, New York, just a lot more discrete for security purposes. Iran’s public wants to connect with the West. It’s only in the past 29 years that the revolution happened. Before that, the people of Iran had a lot more freedom; in general, the men and women mingled, they drank, and they partied. While I may not represent the current reality of women in Iran, I believe I represent their inner values.

On Support Systems…
I would say that 99% of Iranians inside and outside of Iran were very supportive of me winning the Miss World Canada title, particularly because Iran’s name has been put into a bad light these past several years.

I was lucky to have the support of my family who just wants me to be happy and follow my heart. Outside of my family, my support systems were the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and the lawyers in Iran defending child offenders on death row. When I was with the Red Cross and I was going to schools and teaching different issues, the model was “So now what? What do we do?” Instead of crying, I felt empowered to take action. Also, when I first heard about Nazanin, Amnesty International was a major support and they have been fantastic ever since, both through the Help Nazanin and Stop Child Executions campaigns. The law offices in Iran and the lawyers fighting for these children have been a significant help, as well.

On the Value of Woman and Child…
The Iranian Penal Code interprets Sharia law in a way that says a woman’s life is worth half that of a man’s. Under Sharia law, a girl is considered an adult at the age of nine and she is held legally accountable for her actions. The International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights states that you cannot, under any circumstance, execute a minor. The Iranian law bastardizes this and says, “We won’t kill her at nine years old, but we’ll keep her imprisoned until she is 18 and then we will execute her.”

On Cultural Pulls Between Iran and Canada…
When I was growing up in Canada and my friends would have sleepovers, I wasn’t allowed to go and I could never understand why. I think my parents were really just concerned with my safety. My parents were more conservative than your typical Canadian parents, but more liberal than your typical Iranian parents. Culturally, I was being pulled in two directions.

As an adult, I am more inclined to learn about my culture and history and I take a lot of pride in the richness that it provides. The Iranian leaders have a very backward perspective, but I want the people in the West to know that this is not what the Iranians, in general, are like.

On Fitting In and Standing Out…
I understand the pressure that young women are facing today because I was there too. Because I was so involved in school activities, people spit on me, they were so mean to me, but ten years later at my high school reunion, I received apologies and many of my former classmates said, “I always knew you were going to do something good with your life.”

In my situation, I am happy I was strong and that I held onto what I believed. But I also now believe ‘everything in moderation’. Maybe I could have gone to a few more parties because that is part of growing up. I am looking back to when I was a kid and I was doing too much at once. Sometimes, I would just sit there and cry because I was so overwhelmed.

Now I say ‘do as much as you can so long as it makes you happy’. If you have a dream, make it your goal. It’s about balance: not giving into peer pressure, but also allowing yourself enough room to flourish as a human being."


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