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The Tale of Two Nazanins


June 21, 2012

Never underestimate the power of a pageant promise. Especially when the world is watching.

If you ask Wikipedia the meaning of the name “Nazanin” you will find it cited as a common Persian female first name, meaning “lovely”, “beautiful” and the like. And below this definition are listed, by way of example, three Nazanins: Nazanin Boniadi, an actress and spokesperson for Amnesty International, Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a human rights activist and Miss World Canada in 2003 and Nazanin Mahabad Fatehi a 17 year-old girl sentenced to death for stabbing a man in self-defense. It is the latter two Nazanins who form, in alternating chapters, The Tale of Two Nazanins by Nazanin Afshin-Jam and Susan McLellan.

“Nazanin” is a fitting, perhaps even prophetic, name for a Canadian beauty queen with a close and loving family and a host of freedoms and possibilities before her. But “Nazanin” is a woefully ironic choice for an impoverished, Khurdish–Iranian girl who suffers most of her young life from neglect and brutality. While one advances in her education and rises on the world stage, the other struggles to go to school, care for her siblings and survive abuse at home, and menace in her surroundings. In such circumstances, it’s no wonder that trouble finds Fatehi, but the severity of her punishment, and the judgment against her is dictated by the fate of being female in a society that regards a woman’s life as half the value of a man’s.

This is no fairy tale for either Nazanin, but there are some victories noted in the book’s final pages. In Afshin-Jam’s fight to save Fatehi from the death sentence, some advances are made in youth justice in Iran, though for every step forward come two back, it would seem.

In any beauty pageant, vows are made to save the world.  But the old adage is true: pretty is as pretty does. The lengths Afshin-Jam goes to answer one desperate plea are a testament to the sincerity of her promise. A beauty queen’s reign is only a year, but in giving up the crown to its ultimate successor, many a former monarch has embarked upon a life dedicated to making the world a better place. Of these, Afshin-Jam is a shining example. Her cause is not for the faint of heart, and neither is her Tale, which only makes it that much more worthwhile to read, and to learn from.

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