The first time Nazanin Afshin-Jam visited my home, I was nervous. What would the award-winning activist, intellectual and beauty queen think of my windows, which hadn’t been washed in a decade, or the dust bunnies dancing around the Asian antiques? (Between writing and being both mom and chauffeur to my two young daughters, cleaning isn’t high on my priority list.) Then Nazanin called from the Toronto airport to ask if Peter MacKay, her then boyfriend (now husband) and (ahem) Canada’s minister of national defence, could change at my house before the duo attended a black-tie fundraising dinner. My stomach churned.
This was in the fall of 2010, and at that point I had known Nazanin for about three years. We’d become close while working on The Tale of Two Nazanins (published in May by HarperCollins Canada), which weaves together the life stories of Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Nazanin Fatehi, who, in 2005, at the age of 17, was sentenced to death in Tehran for stabbing a man who had tried to rape her. With no experience in international diplomacy, Nazanin launched an unprecedented international campaign that eventually secured Fatehi’s release.
Writing Nazanin’s book has been like working with a soul sister. She knows her international relations better than anyone I’ve ever met, replies instantly to emails and manages the neat trick of looking incredibly chic while also being passionate, generous and down-to-earth. I should have known that the dust bunnies wouldn’t faze her. When she arrived, she breezed upstairs and pitched her pink suitcase containing that evening’s gown onto the bed of one of my daughters. (Nazanin is five feet nine inches tall; the bed is child-sized.) That afternoon, we dined on Indian food while my eldest daughter, Lauren, who composes her own songs, played the piano.
Nazanin, 32, may be a force of nature, but she’s always driven by the same thing: to help the world’s most vulnerable people. In 2007, she co-founded Stop Child Executions, which is dedicated to raising awareness about children— some as young as nine—on death row. (See “Young Blood.”) “Any time I see injustice or I hear a story of someone in pain, I internalize the pain in my own body,” she tells me, motioning to her stomach. “My gut reaction is to want to take away that pain.”
SPARK OF ACTION
The seeds of Nazanin’s activism were sown early. In 1980, when Nazanin was a baby, her family was forced to flee Iran after her father, Afshin, a hotel general manager, was imprisoned and nearly executed for playing music, serving alcohol and not displaying a photo of Ayatollah Khomeini, the supreme leader of Iran, following the 1979 Iranian revolution. The family settled in Vancouver, where Nazanin’s protected childhood was punctured by occasional glimpses of her father’s back, laced with scars from his prison torture. Over the years, her father told Nazanin his story. It made an impression.
More about this woman’s courageous campaign to save a child’s life, on the next page…
In high school, Nazanin started a global-issues club and then volunteered with the Red Cross during university, leading workshops on everything from land mines to natural disasters. Hoping for a larger platform to talk about human-rights abuses, Nazanin entered the 2003 Miss World Canada contest. She won, and then she placed first runner-up in the international Miss World contest. The victories allowed her to travel and volunteer at a fistula hospital in Ethiopia and at devastation sites in India and Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami.
Fatehi’s case immediately resonated with Nazanin, and she sprung into action. She encouraged politicians and dignitaries around the world to intervene on Fatehi’s behalf and brought the 350,000 signatures she’d gathered in an online petition to UN headquarters in New York. In the glare of the global spotlight, judges granted Fatehi a retrial. In 2007, she was found not guilty and set free. Fatehi, who had been suicidal during her confinement, emerged on wobbly legs from the same prison where Nazanin’s father had been tortured.
Nazanin wasn’t at the trial— she likely would have been imprisoned if she’d returned to Iran because of her outspoken opposition to the regime. When she heard about Fatehi’s release, she put her head down and cried. The two Nazanins kept in close contact until the summer of 2010, but, tragically, Fatehi and her family are now missing. Some, including Nazanin, fear the worst: that relatives of the man Fatehi stabbed in self-defence sought revenge or that the regime has silenced her family. “We searched everywhere for her,” says Nazanin. “I want to believe that she is safe. I think of her every day.”
TOWARD THE LIGHT
Nazanin now divides her time between public speaking about human-rights issues and activism. In addition to Stop Child Executions, she is creating United People of Iran, a charity dedicated to empowering Iranians to seek freedom and democracy.
And Nazanin is also a glowing newlywed, having tied the knot with MacKay in January. The couple first met in 2007, when MacKay was minister of foreign affairs and Nazanin spoke as a witness at the House of Commons subcommittee hearing on international human rights. They stayed in touch, and MacKay played a key role in helping to obtain stays of execution for children on death row in Iran.
These days, Nazanin is a regular visitor to my home, hanging out in flannel pyjamas and play-wrestling with my daughters. She’s convinced that Lauren, with her shiny auburn hair and free spirit, will be the next Tori Amos. On a recent visit, she told my daughter Charlotte, who was recently cast in Sesame Street: “If you have a dream, make it your goal. Just be yourself and be genuine. Your beauty will shine through your personality and smile.”
The warm exchange reminded me of something that Nazanin had said earlier: “I see the world in great conflict, but I also see groups of people, particularly women, uniting and working for change. I believe women will play an increasing role in the future in making this a more peaceful world.” Nazanin has dedicated her life to making that happen.
You can purchase "A Tale of Two Nazanins at Harpers Collins.
For more information on Nazanin’s cause, visit StopChildExecutions.com.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.