WONDER Woman: Nazanin Afshin-Jam
When God gives you great gifts, he also gives you great opportunities to use them.
This is especially evident in the life of Nazanin Afshin-Jam.
An international human rights activist, singer/songwriter, actor, former Miss World Canada, President and co-founder of the Stop Child Executions organization, Nazanin was born in Iran in 1979, the same year that the Shāh Pahlavi was exiled and the Ayatollah Khomeini came into power. At the time, Nazanin’s father was manager of the Sheraton Hotel in Tehran. In 1981, he was sentenced to death simply for conducting business as usual at the hotel, which was contrary to the Ayatollah’s oppressive theocratic and anti-Western regime.
Providentially, however, the man sent to carry out her father’s sentence got involved in a car accident, which bought her mother enough time to get her father out of the country and safely to Spain. Nazanin and her mother were able to join him shortly thereafter, and eventually the family settled in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Even as a child, Nazanin says she never took freedom for granted. From an early age she also possessed a deep empathy for other people’s pain.
Once, after volunteering at a soup kitchen, Nazanin says she cried herself to sleep, overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness, unable to understand why some of the people in her affluent neighbourhood had four cars while others didn’t even have enough to eat.
It was in high school, Nazanin says, when she started to see that individuals can make a real difference. She formed a global issues club at her school, and went on to study International Relations and Political Science at the University of British Columbia, and later at the Sciences Po in Paris and at the International Study Center Herstmonceux Castle in England.
After graduation Nazanin worked as a Red Cross Global Youth Educator on the landmine crisis and children affected by war. However, she soon decided that she wanted to reach more than one “pocket of people” at a time. Observing that celebrities and sports stars wield more influence than politicians in today’s world, she decided it was time to “get a title” for herself.
The Miss World competition, whose motto is precisely “Beauty with a purpose”, seemed the most logical place for her to get recognized.
“At first, I resisted the idea of becoming part of the whole beauty pageant culture,” Nazanin admits. “But then I realized that beauty doesn’t have to be a dirty word. It is one of God’s blessings that can be used to advance humanity.” She also points out that the Miss World competition is not about finding the most beautiful woman, but the most well-rounded.
Nazanin won the title of Miss Canada in 2003 and went on to compete for the Miss World title in Sanya, China. She finished second after Miss Ireland, Rosanna Davison.
Winning second place in the Miss World competition gave Nazanin the platform she had been seeking to start promoting global issues. She traveled to various trouble spots around the world, helping victims of the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka, raising funds for the earthquake victims of Bam, and supporting fistula patients in Ethiopia, just to name a few.
Another of Nazanin’s gifts is a talent for singing and songwriting. “Music has no borders,” she says. “So I started setting some of my poems to music.”
While recording her debut album, Nazanin learned of a seventeen year old Iranian girl, also named Nazanin, who had been sentenced to death by hanging for killing a man in self-defense. Nazanin immediately started lobbying to save this girl’s life. A petition of more than three hundred thousand signatures led the United Nations to put pressure on the Iranian government to grant a stay of execution. Nazanin Fatehi was eventually exhonerated of murder charges and was released on January 31, 2007.
While working to save her namesake, Nazanin discovered that no organization yet existed to lobby against child executions, a practice contrary to international law but still done in a handful of countries. This led her to found Stop Child Executions, which lobbies world governments to put pressure on those countries where minors can still be sentenced and put to death.
“Activism can come in many different forms,” Afshin-Jam says. “You don’t have to be a politician or a hippie to change the world and work for peace.”
We should also be careful to avoid stereotypes and not let other people’s opinions or actions dictate our own behaviour, she says. As an example, she brings up the recent controversy over the provocative Miss USA photos. “Those photos were the idea of (owner) Donald Trump,” Nazanin says. “They profit nobody but him.
“What you wear should be a reflection of what’s inside. It shouldn’t be anybody’s choice but yours.”
When asked about her biggest challenges and fears, and how she overcomes them, Nazanin says, “My biggest challenge has been people telling me I couldn’t. What helps me overcome this is the encouragement and love of my family, especially my mother.” She urges all mothers to support their daughters and foster their talents. “As for overcoming fear, I just think of the courage of the people being oppressed in Iran. If I don’t stand up, the person next to me won’t stand up.” She says this thought spurs her to take action instead of giving in to a defeatist attitude.
Nazanin has this advice for educators who want to help students become aware of world issues: “Help them make connections with young people in other countries. Use technology: the internet, social media, Skype, you name it. Make cross cultural exchange part of the curriculum.”
A young girl asks Nazanin wistfully, “When you were younger, did you know you were going to do all these things?”
This is Nazanin’s reply to her and to young women everywhere: “I honestly didn’t know I was going to be Miss Canada, travel around the world and form a group called Stop Child Executions. After volunteering at that soup kitchen, I just knew I wanted to help people for the rest of my life. But I have strong faith in God and pray a lot for guidance. I believe that he has guided me all along. So if you have a dream, make it a goal. I think that when you are doing something you are passionate about, you are always led to the next step.”