Nazanin Afshin-Jam M’11 ✯ A Model Global Activist
Think of an activity, role, or honor, and chances are good that Nazanin Afshin-Jam M’11 has done it, held it, or earned it. Write and perform songs that hit the pop charts? Check. Achieve the highest possible rank in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets? Yes. Finish second in the 2003 Miss World competition? That, too.
It’s an impressive list. But Nazanin is most proud of her global activism and advocacy on behalf of those living under oppression—an activism that ultimately led her to Norwich University for a master’s degree in diplomacy and international conflict management.
“I believed it would lend me even more credibility when sitting on international panels and making media appearances,” Nazanin says of her decision to enroll. “And it has.”
Born in Tehran, Iran, Nazanin immigrated to Canada with her family in 1981 at the age of two. Yet the legacy of her homeland, and the chaos of its 1979 Islamic revolution, left wounds that wouldn’t quite heal. One day, when Nazanin was young, a family friend revealed the truth behind the scars marring her father’s back. “He had been arbitrarily arrested, tortured and narrowly escaped execution,” Nazanin recalls. “I knew then that I wanted to do something meaningful—to give voice to the voiceless.” That was the day she committed herself to a lifetime of seeking justice.
After graduating from the University of British Columbia in 2002 with degrees in international relations and political science, Nazanin first amplified her voice as a global youth educator with the Red Cross—raising awareness of issues such as the poverty-disease cycle, children and war, and land mines. In 2004, while representing Canada in the Miss World competition, she leveraged her crown to speak on behalf of tsunami victims in Southeast Asia. But it was in 2006 that Nazanin truly captured the world’s ear—saving a young woman’s life in the process, and changing the trajectory of her career.
That year, another Nazanin (Mahabad Fatehi) faced execution in Iran for fatally stabbing her would-be rapist. Learning of this, Nazanin collected more than 350,000 signatures on a petition to spare the 17-year-old’s life. After personally delivering the petition to the United Nations, Nazanin leveled intense international pressure on the Iranian government to exonerate the teenager—an effort that ultimately succeeded. This experience inspired Nazanin to co-found Stop Child Executions, an international nonprofit committed to seeking justice for juveniles sentenced to death. Almost overnight, Nazanin became a sought-after expert, public speaker, and policy maker. She was also courted for political office. All these new opportunities demanded additional education.
“I knew, whether I became a politician or remained an activist, that a master’s in diplomacy would increase my knowledge of human rights and force me to consider issues from different angles,” Nazanin says. Norwich met her criteria: a program in her field of interest, with flexibility to continue her work.
Following her 2011 graduation, Nazanin helped to successfully advocate for the closure of the Canadian embassy in Tehran and the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Canada. She was one of nine women featured in Honor Diaries, a multi-award-winning documentary that shines a light on gender inequality in Muslim-majority societies. And this past June, she received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the University of Western Ontario in recognition of her work in global human rights.
Although she has yet to enter politics, she married into it; her husband, Peter MacKay, is Canada’s former minister of justice, with whom she has two small children: Kian and Valentia. She also heads the Nazanin Foundation, focused on women’s and girl’s empowerment. –Jane Dunbar
The Tale of Two Nazanins
The story of Afshin-Jam’s efforts to free 17-year-old Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi is chronicled in her 2013 memoir, The Tale of Two Nazanins, written with Susan McClelland. Following is an excerpt from the book:
I felt something stir deep inside me, some deep connection to this young woman with the same name as me. It was as if I had been here before, faced with the same decision. What if it was me? Who would come to my help?
The alarm clock flashed 11:11. I heard my mother’s voice in my head offering me the advice she had given since I was a young child. It was a quote from Albert Einstein: “The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.”
Whenever I saw the digits 11:11, I felt that God was giving me the message that I was on the right path.
I stepped back from the window, my view of downtown Vancouver and my memories. “I’m going to do it,” I said. “I will help Nazanin.”